Dry cleaning, though it does not involve water, still uses other liquid solvents to clean fabrics. Some of these solvents are hazardous and can, in the wrong circumstances, pose serious health risks and harm the environment.
With this in mind, it is easy to ask: is dry cleaning safe? What is the most notorious dry cleaning solvent available? How much of it remains on your clothes? Can it affect workers in dry cleaning shops? Read on to learn more.
What Is Dry Cleaning, and How Does it Work?
Dry cleaning is an ancient practice. The materials used for it have changed dramatically over time. Previously, Romans used ammonia extracted from lye, urine, and clay to clean garments. However, by the dawn of the modern era, in the 1820’s, most cleaners switched to chemicals like petroleum, benzene, and turpentine. These did a fair job in removing stains but were blatantly toxic to humans and (are also flammable).
It was during WWII when shortages of these natural petrochemicals started. This led to the popularity of perchloroethylene or PERC in dry cleaning. This synthetic chemical is also commonly used in paint stripping, metalworking, and industrial degreasing. Since then, it has become the most common dry cleaning solution.
What Are the Potential Dry Cleaning Health Hazards Associated with PERC?
The extent of possible side effects from PERC will depend on the amount used and the duration of exposure. People who were exposed to high levels of PERC, even for brief periods, may complain of the following symptoms:
- Eye, lung, mucous membrane, and skin irritation
Repeated exposure to PERC can also damage the liver and lungs.
Studies in laboratory animals show that exposure to high amounts of PERC can also affect a developing fetus. Birth defects, altered growth, and even miscarriage may ensue. Unfortunately, studies on humans are limited and inconclusive.
Can PERC cause cancer? Laboratory studies showed that PERC caused cancer in mice after inhalation or swallowing. There has also been a casual association between PERC exposure and increased risk of certain types of cancer among workers in laundry and dry cleaning shops. As this chemical easily evaporates, they can contaminate the air in dry cleaning shops, especially if:
- The dry cleaning machines are poorly maintained;
- There are equipment leaks;
- Waste materials containing PERC are not segregated and disposed properly; and
- Clothes are not completely processed.
Aside from the amount, frequency, and duration of PERC exposure, the individual’s health status, age, lifestyle, and family history are also large considerations.
Experts are continuously conducting comprehensive, in-depth assessments about the health effects of PERC on humans.
Is It Safe to Wear Dry Cleaned Clothes?
As consumers of dry cleaning services, you may be exposed to low levels of PERC, especially if your clothes were improperly processed. However, these amounts are not expected to be hazardous to an average person’s health. You are less likely to get cancer unless you have other risk factors.
You can also tell by smell alone whether all the solvent has been removed from your clothes. If you think that your clothes were not rinsed properly, ask your dry cleaner to re-process your order or bring them to a more reliable shop.
What Are the Possible Alternatives?
New dry cleaning equipment or regular cleaning and maintenance can significantly decrease exposure to PERC. For example, the use of “dry to dry” machines, which wash and dry garments in a single unit, will prevent the need to transfer wet clothes from a washer to a dryer. This definitely lowers the exposure of dry cleaners to PERC.
Work practice controls can also help reduce workers’ exposure. The use of personal protective gear (PPE) greatly helps as well.
Of course, switching to pure organic dry cleaning is one of the best solutions! Green dry cleaners use alternative methods that do not involve PERC. Instead, they use carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon, and silicon, which are gentler and safer solvents.
If you need help dry cleaning your clothes, look no further! Kelly’s Dry Cleaners invests in quality machines and solutions, and we perform regular maintenance on our equipment to safeguard the health of our workers and consumers. We are your best choice if you are looking for Durango, CO Dry Cleaners.