Is Dry Cleaning Bad for Your Health?

by Nick Livermore

After picking up my clothes from the dry cleaner the other day, I noticed that I carried home with me that very, very foreign and distinctly chemical smell of the dry cleaners. The smell is so unique and intimidating that you know it’s not anything you should be inhaling.

I took my clothes out of the (always excessive) plastic wrapping and let them air out a bit. I then went through my mail and lo and behold what did I find, but a flyer for an eco-friendly dry cleaning service free of PERC. Guess where I’ll be taking my clothes next weekend!

What is PERC?

It turns out that PERC is most likely that toxic smell that we all recognize. Short for Perchloroethylene, PERC is (courtesy of the NIH) a colorless, nonflammable liquid with a sweet, ether-like odor. It is also called perchlorethylene, tetrachloroethylene, tetrachlorethylene, PCE, or PERC.

How might I be exposed to PERC?

You can be exposed to perchloroethylene if you dry clean your clothes, which will release small amounts of perchloroethylene into the air after they are dry cleaned, or if you use a laundromat that contains dry cleaning machines. You can also be exposed if you use products that contain perchloroethylene, such as fabric finishers, adhesives, spot removers, typewriter correction fluid, shoe polish, and wood cleaners. Those who work at a dry cleaning, metal degreasing, chemical production, rubber coating, or textile facility also carry the highest risk.

How can PERC affect my health?

Short-term exposure to high levels of perchloroethylene can affect the central nervous system and cause unconsciousness and death. Perchloroethylene is listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because 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.

Short-term exposure to high levels of perchloroethylene can cause buildup of fluid in the lungs, eye and respiratory irritation, severe shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, sleepiness, confusion, difficulty speaking and walking, and lightheadedness.

Short-term exposure to low levels of perchloroethylene can cause dizziness, inebriation, sleepiness, and irritated eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and respiratory tract. Direct contact with perchloroethylene liquid or vapor can irritate and burn the skin, eyes, most, and throat.

Yikes!! What is this stuff? With a reported 85 percent of dry cleaners using it, it’s important to seek an alternative. Short of not dry cleaning your clothes, what can the average consumer do to avoid exposure to what appears to be a really volatile compound? Here’s your options:

–       Opt for a green/environmentally friendly dry cleaning service, such as:

–       Try and alternative method of cleaning

–       Learn how to dry clean at home

–       Buy wrinkle-proof and non-iron clothing

–       Learn how to iron

–       Read the tags on your clothes and you will find that many of them don’t have to be dry cleaned – wash them at home!

Any other tips for those looking to avoid PERC? Let us know in the comments below!

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