Clean your clothes without harmful chemicals
You may recognize it. That faint solvent smell on clothes fresh from the dry cleaners. But those clothes are anything but fresh if they were cleaned with perchloroethylene (perc or PCE). Minor exposures to this solvent can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and respiratory irritation. Sustained exposure may cause a host of adverse health effects, including kidney and liver damage and cancer. Perc released to the environment pollutes the air and can contaminate groundwater supplies.
Fortunately “green” dry cleaners have been sprouting up all over. Here’s how to tell the real environmental innovators from the imposters–and keep your old clothes looking great.
- Wear an undershirt. Having something underneath your dry-clean-only items will allow you to wear them longer between cleanings.
- Handwash or use the delicate cycle. Many fabrics can be safely hand or machine washed at home, even if the tags say to dry clean them. This is because manufacturers, who may be held responsible if the cleaning method on the tag causes damage to your clothing, tend to play it safe by recommending dry cleaning more often than necessary. Handwash with cold water, or use your delicate cycle with a mild detergent and line or flat dry. Cashmere can be safely washed at home. Silk, wool, and rayon can, too, if you watch the temperature and agitation to eliminate damage and shrinkage. Wool items must be “blocked”–laid flat and stretched to correct size and shape before drying. But bulky wool items such as jackets are probably best taken to a dry cleaner.
- Air out. If you do get your clothes dry cleaned, keep in mind that they can release perc into your home. While the levels are highest in the room in which the clothes are stored, perc will spread throughout your home for as long as a week. So, you might want to hang your clothes in the garage or outside before bringing them in.
- Buy clothing that doesn’t need to be dry cleaned.
- Try wet cleaning. Water-based cleaning systems use water and biodegradable detergents in special computer-controlled equipment. That’s right–water replaces the perc as the solvent. Many different formulations are used for the detergents, but the EPA has examined the human health and environmental hazards of the primary components and found no expected health risks. The process is gentle on delicate fabrics and uses less water and energy than traditional perc dry cleaning. The results are usually comparable to perc dry cleaning and the cost about the same. Not all businesses do a top-notch job though. To avoid unpleasant surprises, you might want to test your local wet cleaner before handing over your favorite clothes.
- Try carbon dioxide. A relatively new alternative, CO2 dry cleaning has no reported health risks. Under high pressure liquid CO2 from existing industrial and agricultural emissions is used as the cleaning solvent. There’s a downside, though: The equipment is expensive, and the process uses detergents and spotters that may contain volatile organic compounds.
- Perc chemicals. Some dry cleaners prefer to use perchloroethylene (perc) because it is recognized as an effective cleaning solvent. Don’t be afraid to ask if this is an active ingredient in their cleaning process. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has designated perc as a “probable human carcinogen.” In addition, the EPA deemed that perc may cause reproductive damage, increase risk of cancer, and other acute effects. Dry cleaners must adhere to strict EPA regulations; however, workers may still be exposed to perc’s negative effects. Protect yourself and possible employees by avoiding this chemical.
- Hydrocarbon solvents. A number of dry cleaners that claim to be natural, green, or earth-friendly use “high flashpoint hydrocarbon solvent” technology. These use hydrocarbon solvents, such as DF2000, PureDry, EcoSolve, Shell Sol 140 HT, or Stoddard solvent. Hydrocarbon solvents are petroleum based, so they still emit volatile organic compounds.
- GreenEarth. A process already widely used in California, GreenEarth uses methyl siloxane, or D5, as the dry cleaning solvent. The EPA is still assessing whether siloxane is safe, although an EPA study of rats found a significant increase in uterine tumors following exposure to D5 at high concentrations. Another concern is that manufacturing D5 requires chlorine and may release dioxin.
- N-propyl bromide (1-bromopropane). This technology, also known as DrySolv, has the advantage of being usable in machines that once used perc. But animal studies have shown that n-propyl bromide causes sterility in both males and females and harms developing fetuses.
- Those plastic bags you get at the dry cleaners aren’t particularly friendly to the environment. Reuse and recycle them. Better yet, if you have a lot of dry cleaning, purchase a reusable cloth garment bag for your dry cleaner to use.
- And what about those wire hangers? Take them back to your dry cleaner to be re-used. Or ask your dry cleaner to use your own hangers. Another alternative? Try hangers made from 100% recycled paper.
- If dry cleaning is an absolute must, consider a dry cleaning shop that uses Solvair technology. The specific cleaning agent associated with this process is called Dipropylene Glycol n-Butyl Ether (DPnB). According to the EPA this solvent is considered a “low volatility compound,” but is not listed as a carcinogen. DPnB has low water solubility, is biodegradable, and is not classified as dangerous to aquatic life. On an acute basis, besides slight topical irritations during exposure, genetic and adverse reproductive effects were reported as negative.
…to your health
Skipping perc dry cleaning will reduce your exposure to air contaminants and probable human carcinogens.
…to your wallet
If you skip dry cleaning entirely–or at least reduce the number of items you clean this way–you’ll save money.
…to the Earth
Saying no to perc dry cleaning will help clean up waterways. (In California alone, perc has contaminated one out of every ten public drinking water wells.) You can also save resources and reduce waste by bringing your own hangers and using a cloth garment bag when you go to the cleaners.
Not asking questions. Find out what process your “green” dry cleaner is using. Ask for specifics.
- Figure out which clothes can be safely cleaned at home.
- Locate a green dry or wet cleaner.