The Hazards of Traditional Dry Cleaning

By Ecovian Staff

Dry cleaning is any process to clean clothing using a solvent other than water. Traditionally dry cleaners use a chemical known as Tetrachloroethylene , more commonly known as “Perc”, as the solvent to clean your clothes. Perc is the dry cleaning solvent most commonly used in the world today, and if you’ve ever visited a traditional dry cleaner, or smelt your clothes afterward, you will certainly recognize Perc’s odor.

A typical perc-based dry cleaning machine

A traditional, perc-based dry cleaning machine

Perc is a central nervous system depressant, which also targets the kidney, liver, and reproductive system. Single exposure to Perc can cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, and difficulty in speaking. Additionally Perc is classified as a probable human carcinogen, and a 1996 Consumer Reports study found that there was enough Perc in freshly dry-cleaned clothes to significantly increase the risk of cancer for consumers who wear these clothes frequently.

Perc is a danger to dry cleaning workers and residents who live near dry cleaners, who may not only experience the central nervous system effects, buy may also experience skin, eye, and throat irritation. Perc is also an environmental contaminant, and a US government study has found that approximately 25% of drinking water supplies in the US are contaminated with Perc.

Perc isn’t the only dry cleaning solvent to cause trouble. A number of other conventional dry cleaners use petroleum-based Hydrocarbon solvents, such as Exxon-Mobile’s DF-2000 or Chevron Phillips’ “EcoSolv”. Although somewhat less toxic than Perc, these solvents contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that contribute to smog formation, and being petroleum-based, these solvents are not great for our climate either.

California has banned all new installations of Perc machines, though existing machines won’t be fully phased out until 2023. Fortunately more environmentally-friendly dry cleaning technologies exist, and we have compiled a complete directory of green dry & wet cleaners in the US and Canada.

For more information

Reducing Worker Exposure Guidelines from the US's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on reducing dry cleaning worker exposure to Perc
The Hazards of Dry Cleaning Article by The Daily Green
Perc in Indoor and Outdoor Air Perc fact sheet compiled by the New York State Department of Health