Cleaning up dry cleaning
Consumers should demand that cleaners stop using percholorethylene
Now that the cold winds of autumn are upon us and we are shutting our houses up tight again, it is a good time to consider the air quality inside our homes.
Indoor air quality is typically two to five times more polluted than the air outside. Since the average person spends 70 percent of their time inside their home, indoor air pollutants also have a disproportionate impact on our health.
Most of the sources of indoor pollutants are easy to identify and can be controlled with little effort. One important source of indoor air quality pollutants is your dry cleaning.
The majority of dry cleaning is done using percholorethylene, or PERC. High levels of PERC have been measured inside homes for up to five days after bringing home dry cleaning. Short-term exposure to PERC can cause acute health effects such as respiratory tract and eye irritation, behavior and mood changes, headaches and sleepiness. Chronic exposure can impair cognitive function, cardiac arrhythmia, liver and kidney damage and trigger reproductive and developmental changes.
PERC is not just a problem in the home. It has been used for almost 200 years, and it is having an effect on our larger environment as well. According to the EPA, PERC "is found in the air and drinking water nationwide," and is a contributing pollutant in over half our nations' 1,430 Superfund sites.
California has already banned PERC dry cleaning. However, the ban does not go into full effect until 2023. Fortunately there are alternatives in the marketplace. A 2003 Consumer Reports evaluation of dry cleaning methods found most of the alternatives actually worked better. Here are three PERC-free methods in common use today:
• Carbon dioxide: This method was developed by Joseph DeSimone, a chemical engineer with North Carolina State. He was able to create a benign solvent out of carbon dioxide with funding from the EPA, NSF, and a number of chemical companies. He has patented the process and licenses the technology through Hangers Cleaners. Tests by Consumer Reports rated this method better than any other.
• Silicon-based: Using silicon as a medium for cleaning is another popular method. This was found by the same Consumer Reports studies to be almost as good as the carbon dioxide method and still much better than PERC cleaning. Unfortunately, it too is proprietary, and is being marketed under the name GreenEarth.
• Wet cleaning: This method is the most labor intensive and requires the most knowledgeable cleaning staff. In wet cleaning the type of soap, water temperature and drying methods are chosen based on the garments. In the Consumer Reports evaluation, this method had the spottiest record, rivaled only by PERC dry cleaning. Since its success depends on the quality of the cleaners, results can vary; but it's popular among independent cleaners because it is not proprietary.
The 2003 Consumer Reports evaluation, including the unimpressive PERC results, can be found at (get ready for a long URL) www.consumerreports.org/cro/home-garden/cleaning-supplies/drycleaning-alternatives-203/index.htm.
Dry cleaners, which tend to be small business, are often resistant to making the capital-intensive changes necessary to use non-PERC methods. They also have elaborate rationales as to why PERC cleaning is safe and the best quality. The sad trail of cancers, neurological disorders, organ failures and reproductive problems among dry cleaning workers tells a different story.
Until consumers demand PERC-free dry cleaning, cleaners are unlikely to change. Encouraging your dry cleaner to switch over to non-PERC alternatives — and then switching cleaners if they refuse — is the best way to rid ourselves of this widespread contaminant. You will have no trouble finding PERC-free cleaners locally.
Forrest Linebarger is CEO and chief designer at VOX Design Group Inc. in Mountain View, and has been designing and building sustainable homes for over a decade. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (650) 694-6200, Ext. 511.