"Dry" cleaning is one of those things that sounds like a much better idea than it is. You might have an inkling of that when you step into a dry cleaners to drop off or pick up your laundry and get an overpowering whiff of ...yeah, what IS that smell?
It's actually a toxic solvent called perchloroethylene, or PERC. I get an instant headache if I'm exposed to it after as little as ten minutes; I don't know how the cleaners themselves can tolerate it. It's also known to cause nausea and dizziness, has been linked to reproductive problems, including miscarriage and male infertility, and been blamed for disorders of the central nervous system. Bringing clothes that exude PERC into homes and cars can leave behind a residue that can rise above levels that are considered safe to breathe. How "clean" is that?
PERC poses an environmental threat, too. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the chemical generates toxic air pollution and hazardous waste in many of the communities where it's used. In fact, says NRDC, three-quarters of PERC-using dry cleaners in the U.S. are estimated to have contaminated soil and groundwater where they're located.
CLEANER, GREENER DRY CLEANING ALTERNATIVES
If you'd prefer not to bring PERC into your home, beware of cleaners that claim to be "organic" or green but aren't. "GreenEarth" is the brand name for siloxane D5, a silicone-based chemical the manufacturer says degrades into sand, water and carbon dioxide. However, the EPA is still assessing whether siloxane could cause cancer. A 2003 study showed an increase in uterine tumors among female rats that were exposed to very high levels of these chemicals.
Also avoid petroleum-based solvents, sometimes marketed as Stoddard, DF-2000, PureDry, EcoSolve, and Shell Solution 140 HT. Yes, they contain organic chemicals, but they're the "volatile organic chemicals" or VOCs that cause some of the same problems attributed to PERC.
The good alternatives?
"Wet" cleaning: This method uses water and specially formulated, nontoxic, biodegradable detergents to clean sensitive fabrics such as wool, silk, linen, and rayon. It is one of two processes considered environmentally preferable by the Environmental Protection Agency. It does not create toxic air or water pollution, nor does it appear to have negative health effects. Just be sure that, before you turn your special fabrics over to shops that offer wet cleaning, you discuss the fabric with them to make sure wet cleaning is appropriate.
* Liquid carbon dioxide (CO2): EPA also considers this method preferable to dry cleaning, but it's more difficult to find because the equipment it uses is expensive. Some CO2 cleaners also use a Solvair machine, which adds the toxic solvent glycol ether to the process; ask the cleaning company to explain their entire process before you do business with them.
* Find safer cleaning companies. Go to www.nodryclean.com to find the safest dry cleaners near you.
* Do it yourself? The Laundress has developed non-toxic and biodegradable cleaning agents you can use at home to launder your own fine and sensitive fabrics.
What else can you do to avoid PERC?
* Buy "wash and wear" clothes you can launder at home. Before you buy new clothes, check the label on the inside seam for laundry directions. If it says "dry clean only," you might want to reconsider.
* Treat stains and dirt when they occur. For most fabrics other than silk, you can treat stains with soda water and a little gentle liquid soap, saving you the trouble of having to wash the entire garment.
* Wear cotton camisoles and t-shirts under hard-to-launder fashions. The underwear will absorb sweat and body odor and help extend the life of your more delicate sweaters and blouses.
* If you do need to go to a traditional dry cleaners, expose your clothes to the fresh air. Put the windows down if you're driving home with the clothes in the car. Once home, take the clothes out of the plastic bag they came in and hang them outside.