Cleaner Clothes Don’t Have to Equate to a Dirtier Environment

(EPA Photo/Kasia Broussalian)

By Pooja Shah

Thanks to the dry cleaning industry, cleaning our clothes is a simple two-step process: drop off and pick up. But the science behind the machines, a mystery to nearly all consumers, is much more complex. The most widely used cleaning agent, called perchloroethylene, is a colorless liquid that evaporates quickly. Also known as perc, this reusable liquid is volatile, stable, and nonflammable; all these benefits result in perc being used by about 90% of all cleaners.

The actual cleaning of clothes is a five-step process: tagging and inspection; pre-treatment; dry cleaning; post-spotting; and finishing. But, it is the third step that is most important and incorporates the use of perc. A monstrous cleaning machine pumps perc, instead of water, through the clothes like a regular washing machine.

For all its ease and ability to clean clothes, perc adversely affects our health and environment. It is possibly carcinogenic to humans. Other symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, headaches, confusion, nausea, and skin, lung, and eye irritation. Repeated exposure to high levels can also cause liver damage and respiratory failure.

Meanwhile, EPA has classified perc as a toxic air pollutant. Generally, it escapes into the outdoor air through open windows, vents, and air-conditioning systems. Once outdoors, perc can remain in the atmosphere for several weeks. Far worse, if the chemical enters the ground, it can contaminate both the soil we use to grow our food and our water table. This chemical is then stored in our body fat for an indefinite amount of time.

According to a Chemical Fact Sheet prepared by the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, exposure to perc can occur when people use products containing perc; spend time in dry cleaners that use perc; live above or adjacent to these dry cleaning facilities; or bring dry-cleaned garments into their home.

But, there is good news. EPA has mandated that dry cleaners, located in residential buildings, must replace perc by 2020. Moreover, through improvements in equipment and better operating practices, perc consumption is being reduced.

We don’t have to sit back and allow perc to prevail in our lives. By asking a simple question, like what product your local dry cleaners uses, we can choose to get our clothes cleaned somewhere else and make a bigger impact. For more information, click here.

Pooja Shah is a Public Affairs Summer Intern for EPA Region 2. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Economics at George Washington University.

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