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Alternatives to toxic drycleaning: what and why and how

The Green Mama speaks with the CBC on the dangers of traditional drycleaning and the benefits of the greener alternatives

I was interviewed for a show on PERC done by the CBC and I am using this opportunity to finally do a blog about the problems of drycleaning and the healtheir alternatives. Thank you CBC for taking on this interesting issue. I have been finding an alternative to typical drycleaners for ten years, since Chicago opened the first wetcleaner in North America and it was one of the first green services I sought when moving to Vancouver.  I’ve had everything wetcleaned: from my husbands business suits, to my favourite wool sweater, and my silk and sequince wedding dress.

Why is it so important to avoid drycleaning?
PERC also known as perchoroethylene or tetrochoroethylene is a chemical solvent used primarily to dry clean clothes, but can also appear in paint strippers, spot removers, and some shoe polish. PERC is considered a probable carcinogen and was declared toxic in 1997 under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. It is known to be toxic to the liver and central nervous system, can bioaccumulate, and animals studies have linked it to increased risk of leukemia and workplace studies  have linked it to a variety of other cancers. You can visit the National Library of Medicine Tox Town database to learn all the other ways it can kill you.

While I was waiting to be interviewed for the CBC story, I spoke with Johannes from my current favourite wetcleaner, Helping Hands, and he told stories of watching old drycleaning guys just dump PERC, after many uses, straight out the back door. He described it as getting thick and I imagined gelatinous, not at all how I assumed it would be. He also talked about the old drycleaners he once knew and how many of them had died young from cancer. One person’s story isn’t science, but it was enough to convince him that he would never do anything but the green alternative. He learned to do it all at drycleaning school, but he chose to open a cleaner that only provided the green option.

PERC isn’t one of those chemicals that stays put. It evaporates quickly. Most of what is used evaporates into the air, making it a major issue for those who work in drycleaners, regularly hang out near drycleaning machines, or live near a drycleaner. In fact, anyone who lives in a city is breathing in higher levels of it than those living in rural areas (assuming you don’t live next to the drycleaner out there). PERC can also get into the soil, both from the air and from being dumped improperly, but it doesn’t bind well to soil and thus enters into the groundwater eventually. It doesn’t mix well with water either, though, so it eventually moves into the bodies of the plants and animals exposed to the contaminated water.

According to the CBC story, “the B.C. Ministry of Environment says old dry cleaning businesses account for roughly a quarter of the province’s high-priority contaminated sites. The other three quarters are primarily former gas stations, bulk fuel storage sites and mines.” That is a lot of contaminated land and a lot of people likely still being exposed to PERC from groundwater contamination.

Yet, that contaminated land and those exposed represents a tiny fraction of the exposure that occurred while the drycleaners were still working. Remember, the vast majority of PERC ends up in the air, the primary route of exposure is through breathing, everyone living in urban areas is breathing PERC at low levels.

“Perversely, everything perchloroethylene comes into contact with at the dry cleaners
must be handled as ‘hazardous waste’ except the dry cleaned clothes we wear,” reports Greenpeace in an investigation of Safer Chemicals.  If you dryclean your clothes you are being exposed to PERC. You smell it even: that slightly sweet odour that wafts out of the bag when you open it up is PERC. You breath it in, it floats around your home, your children breath it in. Indeed, PERC has been found, and may be concentrated, in the breastmilk of women who have been exposed.

PERC is just one of many chemicals, about 80,000 used commercially right now in North America, that we allow to be used without safety testing or despite evidence to suggest it may be dangerous to human and environmental health. Things are changing, however. In Europe, they have created a regulation called REACH to improve testing and reduce human and environmental exposure to the worst chemicals by banning the worst substances and helping encourage the industry towards healthier alternatives.  California has established something similar for its state called Prop 65. California is the first large economy to ban PERC. It must be completely eliminated in dry cleaning facilities and water repellent solutions by 2023 and thus located beneath or next to apartment buildings or homes had to eliminate the solvent by 2010, the same year all older machines had to be updated. “According to the state agency, the PERC ban has spurred a switch to alternative technologies, such as hydrocarbon-based, water-based and carbon dioxide systems.”

Of course, this begs the question: when we know that PERC causes both environmental and human harm and we know there are safer alternatives, why wouldn’t every federal government phase out PERC for a healthier alternative? Does Canada care less about its citizens than California? Does the U.S. federal government have less of a responsibility than the state government to show leadership on health and the environment?

To find a professional wet cleaner near you, visit the Professional Wet Cleaning website. I can personally attest to the wonderful service at Helping Hands in Vancouver, and the Greener Cleaner in Chicago.

By Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama. Learn more about what’s going on behind the scenes by signing-up for The Green Mama’s weekly newsletter.

2 responses to “Alternatives to toxic drycleaning: what and why and how”

  1. Silence Is Golden says:

    I hardly ever need a dry-cleaner so am only now looking into finding one here in Vancouver for one specific piece of clothing. I’ve done quite a bit of research on the alternatives to PERC (would rather throw my clothing away than using/supporting that) and would not want to risk shrinkage and/or pilling from wet-cleaners. Do you happen to know any cleaner here that uses liquid carbon dioxide (CO2)? It seems to be the most effective with the least potential side-effects.

    • Manda says:

      Hi Silence. I don’t know a drycleaner using CO2 here. However, I highly recommend that you take your item to one of the very few wet cleaners in Vancouver–such as Helping Hands Cleaners or Village Cleaners–and ask them what they can do. I go to Helping Hands and they have always been very honest with what they can safely do: I even had my wedding dress (hand beaded!) done at a wet cleaner. You may be surprised! Good luck and let me know what you learn!