I love it when my clothes come back from the dry cleaners with that crisp, sweet smell.
That "crisp, sweet smell" you love is the scent of the chemical known as perchloroethylene, or perc. Perc is also called dichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, PCE, dichloroethylene and a handful of other hard-to-pronounce names. The chemical solvent is also used to strip the grease off metal, and has also been under investigation for years by the EPA
, the Department of Labor, the American Cancer Society, and a host of other scientific and medical institutions.
Uh-oh. Perchloroethylene sounds like another health scare to me.
Yes, perc is powerful chemical that's been linked to cancer by several scientific investigations. According to the National Institutes of Health: "long-term exposure to perchloroethylene can cause leukemia and cancer of the skin, colon, lung, larynx, bladder, and urogenital tract. Long-term exposure may also damage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys; it can also cause respiratory failure, memory loss, confusion, and dry and cracked skin. If you are pregnant, long-term exposure to perchloroethylene may damage a developing fetus." It can also get released into the environment and seep into drinking water supplies, where it's notoriously difficult to remove.
You can have my dry cleaning when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.
Let's hope it doesn't come to that, but the mountain of evidence pointing to perchloroethylene as a dangerous compound is nothing less than overwhelming. Some advocates urge people to air out their dry cleaning for a few hours outdoors (without the plastic bag) after bringing it home to get the perc smell off of it. Remember that dry cleaning workers have been found to have a higher-than-normal risk of cancer and other illnesses linked to their exposure to perchloroethylene. That's why most state and local health departments require dry cleaning establishments to have strong ventilation and other safeguards against worker exposure.
So what am I supposed to do, run around in a burlap sack to avoid perchloroethylene?
Only if you have the right shoes -- clogs might work. Or, consider the growing number of green dry cleaners who use methods like liquid carbon dioxide. Another option is "wet-dry cleaning," which uses water and biodegradable soap to clean silk, wool, leather and rayon.
I didn't know these green dry cleaning options existed.
You might have to scout around for a green dry cleaner, and it might cost a dollar or two more, but it's worth it. Otherwise, try to minimize your impact by buying clothes that don't need dry cleaning, or use a home dry-cleaning kit like Dryel for delicate fabrics (they contain no perc). Many items like wool sweaters can be washed and dried flat. Here are a few more tips for green laundering