The chemical most commonly used to dry clean clothes in America is perchloroethylene, or “perc.” Perc is a chlorinated hydrocarbon chemical that creates dioxin, vinyl chloride, carbon tetrachloride and phosgene during its manufacture and breakdown processes. Human health problems associated with exposure to perc include nervous system damage, liver and kidney damage, several types of cancer and reproductive impacts (perc passes easily from the mother to the fetus).
Exposure to perc occurs through inhalation and skin absorption; if you can smell it, you’re being exposed. Studies show that nursing mothers who are occupationally exposed or who live in apartments over dry cleaning establishments often have enough perc in their breast milk to put their infants at risk.
These risks and the ubiquitous presence of perc as a groundwater contaminant have stimulated the development of new professional cleaning processes. “Wet” cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) are safe and effective alternatives:
Wet cleaning uses special detergents and washing/drying machines to reduce clothing exposure to heat and moisture. The machines cost less than perc equipment and reduce energy consumption, but additional labor may be required for finishing.
CO2 cleaning is the newest technology on the market. The process uses pressurized liquid carbon dioxide as a cleaning agent. CO2 machines are considerably more expensive than other types.
Note: Hydrocarbon and silicone cleaning technologies are still being evaluated for their possible health and environmental effects.
If there are no alternative cleaners in your neighborhood, you can reduce your exposure to perc by removing the plastic bags and hanging newly dry-cleaned clothes outside before putting them away in your closet.