Last Updated: November 13, 2020
Professional dry cleaning has origins rooted deeply into the late 70’s, not the twentieth century 70’s you’re probably thinking about, but the ancient time 70’s. The 1st century A.D.
The dry cleaning business has survived through ages and squared up firmly against many competitive inventions, and today modern versions of what our ancestors used to employ is found widespread across the different corners of the globe.
Perhaps, if there’s any important take away from this ancient narrative, it’s that the process of dry-cleaning is one fraught with very little to insignificant human detriments isn’t it? Since the process itself has persisted for ages and has gained widespread popularity among modern dwellers? Nothing can actually go wrong with dry cleaning can there?
Unfortunately though, this happens to be one of those scenarios that perfectly explain the old adage “there’s actually more to it than meets the eyes”. And by truth, there’s a whole lot of explanation that the dry cleaning business isn’t telling you about. So in this article, we’ll take our time to tell you each and every aspect of the hidden tale.
Is dry cleaning safe?
Perchloroethylene dry cleaning which is the most widely used method of dry cleaning today is not totally safe because it has the potential of releasing harmful “perc” chemical into the environment which can accumulate to toxic levels in humans and animals and present a variety of side effects (both short term and long term).
Other toxic forms of dry cleaning have been employed in the past before the invention of perchloroethylene dry cleaning, but their use today have greatly depreciated given the higher effectiveness of the latter method and the detrimental nature of the cleaning process on both workers and the environment. More on that as we progress.
What exactly is Perchloroethylene dry cleaning?
Before we dive straight into that, you first of all need to understand what dry cleaning is and how it works. So, below is a quick dose of guidance to get you going.
Dry cleaning basically means to clean without wetting, which further translates into any mode cleaning fabric and textiles that doesn’t apply water as the primary solvent– since the term ‘wet’ is mostly specific to water. During dry cleaning, garments are soaked together with a powerful liquid solvent (that is not water) in order to dissolve stains (or soils as they were archaically called) and get scuff marks off from the surface.
They are tumbled in a basket called cylinder or wheel, stripped of any remaining liquid solvent after the cleaning cycle and then dried using external dryer or built in dryer of the washing machine.
Detergents can also be added before or during the cleaning process so as to further enhance the removal of dirt and stains, especially wet type stains. The process itself can be highly effective and efficient depending on a variety of factors, the most important of which is the type of solvent employed for the cleaning process.
The extremely short history of dry cleaning (a must read)
Dry cleaning has been around for ages. Even earlier than the 1880’s. Professional dry cleaners before the invention of modern day dry cleaning, then known as fullers, cleaned delicate wool fabrics of people with ammonia (a derivative of ordinary urine and lye) and a specific type of clay called fuller’s earth which was excellent at sucking out impurities such as sweat, dirt and grease stains. This method dated back to the ancient times as old as the year 79.
In the mid-80s, the inefficient and protracted ammonia and clay methods were professionally replaced by petroleum based solvents that were recognized for their cleansing powers after the clumsy maid of a certain French dye-works owner, Jean Baptiste Jolly, in 1855, accidentally spilled the contents of a kerosene lamp on his greasy tablecloth. He very soon however, discovered how clean the affected area turned out immediately after the kerosene evaporated. The popular dry cleaning solvents developed since after the fortunate incident in 1885 include turpentine spirits, kerosene, camphor oil and gasoline.
Because of the highly flammable and environmentally degrading nature of petroleum products, and also because of their high temperature requirements for drying and deodorizing garments (among a few other reasons), greener and much safer alternatives were sought after and that is where perchloroethylene and other ‘green’ methods of dry cleaning come into play.
Perchloroethylene dry cleaning
Perchloroethylene is one of the few liquid solvents that have been developed as an alternative to the volatile and vulnerable petroleum products that continually set dry cleaning plants ablaze and contributed greatly to the depletion of the zone layer.
It was first synthesized by popular English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday in 1821 but was not readily employed commercially by dry cleaners until the late 1930’s and early 1940’s after a US dry cleaner by the name William Joseph Stoddard further developed the chemical.
Today, perchloroethylene is the most commonly used solvent in the dry cleaning industry all thanks to its superior cleaning power, gentleness, affordability, compactness and stability which makes it very easy to recycle and re-use.
Perchloroethylene is also known as perc, PCE, tetrachloroethene, or tetrachloroethylene and it’s a manmade chemical manufactured in industries.
While the most widely recognized application of perchloroethylene is as a solvent for dry cleaning fabrics such as suits or cottons, the chemical additionally find useful applications in the metal industry (for degreasing metal parts), in the chemical industry for manufacturing other chemicals and also in the production of consumer products such as spot removers and water repellents.
Perchloroethylene is a nonflammable colorless liquid at room temperature that readily evaporates into the air. It also has a sharp sweet odor recognized by chemists and scientists as an ether like scent. If you’ve been to the dry cleaners shop before, you know exactly what we’re talking about.
Perchloroethylene as an environmental hazard
Perchloroethylene is the much safer and greener alternative to petroleum solvents, and the dry cleaning industry find itself worshiping this chemical because of its affordability (compared to other solvents in the market) and also the squeaky clean reaction it produces when subjected to oil stained fabrics, but truth be told however, perchloroethylene is actually far from the ‘safest’ alternative out there for dry cleaning cloths.
Many certified health organizations around the world have commented on the harmful potential effects of perchloroethylene when released into the environment, and one prominent organization recognized as the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency), based on extensive research and evidence have further classified the chemical as likely carcinogenic to humans at frequent exposure of higher doses, which means that perc could likely cause cancer to any persons constantly exposed to higher blasts for longer duration.
Perchloroethylene is naturally toxic in its composition and so when ingested into the body by both humans and animals can cause many side effects ranging from mild to extremely severe complications of the health. Virtually all life cycle forms of humans can be affected by perchloroethylene emission and so are pets and other wild and domestic animals.
Perchloroethylene usually find its way into the bodies of people and animals through air, water and soil, and from contact with products containing it. Dry cleaning plants and perchloroethylene manufacturers improperly disposing of and managing their wastes and effluents can end up contaminating soil, air or nearby rivers and water channels by accidentally leaking or deliberate releasing the waste there.
The perchloroethylene particles on both the soil and water surface further evaporate into the air (adding to the current levels in the atmosphere), and remain persistent for many many years, travelling to distant places and contaminating people and animals.
Across the globe, several measure have been taken, laws enacted and policies imposed to control the use of perchloroethylene in industries and the emission and management of wastes derived from its use.
While in some countries, for example the United States, current levels of perchloroethylene in the atmosphere have significantly reduced compared to previous records, in other countries, the opposite is true, and the problem of perchloroethylene contamination still persists and pose a great risk to its citizens.
How do people get perchloroethylene into their bodies?
As established earlier, perchloroethylene is released into the atmosphere through evaporation from industrial and dry cleaning operations into the air and also through evaporation from soils and water bodies that have been contaminated from discharged wastes. It can also contaminate the air through evaporation from areas where chemical wastes are stored or disposed.
When residents living nearby inhale this air, they absorb the chemical into their bodies which can gradually accumulate into organs such as fat, liver and the brain, although a vast majority of the chemical is exhaled instantly and some broken down into other compounds and eliminated in the urine weeks after.
Consistent exposure in this manner means more accumulation of the chemical into these organs and thus an increased risk of its health effects. Perchloroethylene can also get into the body through contact with contaminated materials such as soil and also by drinking. Mind you, that the properly cleaned cloths you retrieve from your respective dry cleaners will hardly ever contain any toxic levels of perchloroethylene that can cause or build up and cause any complications in the body, so wearing them is completely safe, unless you’re the unfortunate extra sensitive guy, in which case, here’s an important safety tip for you should dry cleaning become a must;
Always make sure to dispose of the plastic wrap covering your cloths and properly ventilate your bedroom space to prevent any potential accumulation of perchloroethylene.
This is also or even more beneficial to dry cleaners, since their shops are the ones likely to be constantly filled up with perchloroethylene washed cloths. Proper ventilation in this case is essential to prevent toxin accumulation.
With the above paragraphs in mind, it’s now pretty evident that the populations more susceptible to perchloroethylene contamination are industrial workers and residents that live near or within the vicinity of dry cleaning plants. They have greater chances of being exposed consistently to higher levels of perchloroethylene than non-workers and far away residents, even higher that the New York Health Department’s recommendation of no more than 30 mg/mc3 — although several measures and technologies have been put to place in the past few decades to reduce occupational and residential exposure and the results are mostly successful in the places where they have been implemented.
Examples of such measures and technologies include the complete phase out of residential dry cleaners, proper ventilation of work areas to prevent the escape of effluents, use of safer and better machines, and the promotion of greener alternatives to perchloroethylene.
Industrial workers, as an example, dry cleaners, can be exposed to perchloroethylene when they load dirty cloths into washing machines, clean and change filters, clean lint and button traps, conduct maintenance on machines or even from mere breathing.
Residents (and virtually most people that become contaminated) are usually exposed through inhalation.
What are the side effects of perchloroethylene?
There are many researches that show the potential toxic effect of perchloroethylene. Perchloroethylene in itself is only extremely hazardous when ingested into the body at higher concentrations and for consistent duration or for as long as a lifetime. Most people however, only experience brief exposures for inconsistent frequencies and lower dosage, and are thus, mostly going to experience mild side effects or no side effects at all.
EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency)
In 2014, the EPA (which is the United States Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with environmental protection matters in the states), published a press release where they classified perchloroethylene as likely to be carcinogenic to humans by all routes based on suggestive evidence from animal and epidemiological studies.
They mentioned that studies of people exposed to higher dose of perchloroethylene in their work place have found relationship between perchloroethylene and several types of cancer, specifically bladder cancer, non-hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Strong relationship between perchloroethylene and esophageal, kidney, cervical and breast cancer is yet to be established by the medical community however, according to the press release.
The EPA also mentioned in the press release that short term exposure to high levels of perchloroethylene in humans produce mild side effects which include irritation of the upper respiratory tract and eyes and also kidney dysfunction. In animals, effects on the liver, kidney and central nervous system is observed. Short term exposure at lower concentrations present side effects such as reversible moods, behavioral changes, dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, and unconsciousness. These effects disappear soon after the exposure is terminated.
For long term exposure, the side effects experienced are mostly adverse with the major effects being neurological which includes symptoms such as headaches, impairments in motor and cognitive neurobehavioral functioning and color vision decrements. Other less pronounced effects include liver damage, kidney effects, immune and hematologic effects and possibly development and reproduction effects. In animals the same side effects as with exposure to acute blast is observed.
The EPA made mentioned of some adverse reproductive effects in humans such as menstrual disorders, altered structure of sperm, reduced fertility and birth defects, but they also pointed out that the evidence for these complications is inconclusive. In animals however, a strong link have been found regarding chronic exposure to perchloroethylene and fetal resorption and structural distortions.
In addition to all these mentioned above, the possibility for an increased risk also depends on the characteristics of the exposed person such as age, sex, diet and presence of other chemicals in the body (among a few others). This is also known as the sensitivity, and it varies greatly across individuals.
What is the normal background level of perchloroethylene?
Perchloroethylene is constantly found in the atmosphere and the typical background levels (for areas far away from any environmental sources) are only a couple of micrograms per cubic meters. The New York Health Department recommends that perchloroethylene levels (especially indoors) are maintained at or near background level whenever possible and feasible and also recommend a safe level of perchloroethylene in the air of no more than 30 micrograms per cubic meters. This guideline puts into consideration a continuous lifetime exposure and sensitive individuals. The dosage you might be exposed to when at the dry cleaners shop or from your well-cleaned cloths will hardly every reach this guide mark, so most of us (with the exception of extremely sensitive people) are safe to go.
What are the greener alternatives to perchloroethylene dry cleaning?
As far as the term ‘greener’ is concerned, you’ll always find the words organic and natural used consistently around it. Some brands promote themselves as green by claiming to use organic and natural solvents, but what a majority of customers don’t understand is that the terms organic and natural do not always mean Eco-friendly.
Perchloroethylene is a hydrocarbon solvent which means it’s also made up of chains of carbons. So here, the chains of carbon (unethically) justifies the identification of perchloroethylene as an organic solvent. Under this definition too, gasoline and other petroleum based products are organic, but know today that they’re actually detrimental to the ozone layer.
When it comes to choosing Eco-friendly dry cleaning for your fabrics, the easiest and cheapest option is to try and wash them yourself using biodegradable detergents. You’ll discover that not all “dry clean only” cloths require dry-cleaning, although some clothing materials really can’t stand hand or machine washing as they run the risk of shrinking and changing texture or the shoulder pads becoming lumpy. Typical examples of these materials are synthetic fibers such as viscose, lyocell, modal and cupro which react poorly with water and must be dry cleaned. Fabrics with fancy embellishments, flocking or beads attached by glue are also better dry cleaned than washed manually by hands or using a washer.
In case you didn’t know, the “dry clean only” tag on your cloths are only there to warn you that “they (the brand) are not to be responsible whenever your cloths get damaged in the washer or by your own hands”. They know something about the fabric that you do not know and that’s mostly how carefully and gently it should washed. Your regular home washer isn’t as gentle enough, and your hands aren’t as soft either, believe it or not. They’re basically telling you to go get your fabrics washed the gentle and most efficient way in order to preserve the quality.
‘Dry clean only’ materials such as wool, linen, silk or cotton which are nothing but natural fibers, can tolerate the rough handling and toiling of the washing machine and still come out unaffected. To be on the safer side however, you should always test a little portion of the fabric before going in all to make sure it doesn’t color bleed, wrap or shrink.
If going for dry cleaning becomes a necessity however, make sure to ask for alternatives such as liquid carbon dioxide which uses pressurized co2 (liquid) as the solvent or GreenEarth cleaning which basically uses environmentally safe liquefied sand (sio2). Another alternative is to simply go for wet washing using biodegradable detergents. The process is just as effective as perchloroethylene cleaning with an added advantage that it is also less dangerous; no use of hazardous chemicals, no hazardous waste generation and no air pollution among a few other things.