Let’s imagine that after a full schedule of Earth Day events – maybe you attend the UC San Diego Green Campus Program on the UCSD campus or the Miami Beach Earth Day Expos 2006 – you decide afterwards to go out for an evening of eco-clubbing. After imbibing on a few high octane eco-drinks mixed with organic whisky from The Organic Spirits Company … and certified by the Soil Association, the UK’s premier certifier of organic produce … you lurch toward the dance floor, stumble over a table and another eco-reveler accidentally pours an organic and biodynamic Frey Vineyards organic Syrah 2004 wine (“opulent nose, fragrant with spice and toasty oak notes; Rhone-style wine with a pleasing finish and heavy legs”) all over your Deborah Lindquist Wool Tweed Bustier with Feather Trim ($440) or Edun Pieced Camelot Shirt ($155).
Late the next morning, you blearily sip your organic, shade-grown Kalani Organic Coffee and dwell in eco Woody Allen-esque guilt about the incongruities of trying to establish health and wholeness in the environment while abusing the health and wholeness of your own consciousness, when all of a sudden you have the epiphany that you had better do something about that wine stain before it becomes a permanent part of the fabric motif. You realize that you are not up to the task to deal with it so the only solution is the dry cleaners … but what kind of dry cleaners?
Conventional dry cleaners are a horribly toxic lot using chemicals that are potentially nasty to the environment and the health of dry cleaning workers, people living near dry cleaners and customers wearing clothing just back from the dry cleaners. Here’s the green scoop on organic dry cleaning.
A Short History on Dry Cleaning: Dry cleaning is not really “dry” but uses a toxic chemical liquid solution in industrial washing machines to gently agitate and lift stains and dirt from clothing in a manner similar to a home washing machine. The dry cleaning process originated in France in 1825 and was discovered by accident when a worker in a cleaning factory spilled lamp oil, which is a petroleum-based solvent, on a soiled tablecloth. When the table cloth dried, Viola! the stains were gone and a new industry emerged. The new cleaning method was called dry because it used turpentine and kerosene and not “wet” water. Within a few years, they started using benzene and gasoline, which were more refined and had fewer industrial petroleum impurities. These great advances in cleaning had the slight drawback of the solvents being highly flammable. More than one early dry cleaning shop burst into flame or was blown out of the neighborhood. Oh, yes … the clothes also stank like a gas tank after being cleaned.
Over the years, less explosive petroleum-based solvents were introduced and then in 1928, a new almost odorless, petroleum-based solvent call Stoddard Solvent swept the dry cleaning industry. With a much higher flashpoint making it less explosive and flammable, Stoddard Solvent really cleaned up, but dry cleaning fires were still all too common.
In the early 1900s, chemists were discovering how to synthesize chlorinated hydrocarbons. These nonflammable solvents quickly found their way into dry cleaning shops. Carbon tetrachloride was the early contender but it was highly toxic and had the unfortunate side effect of corroding metals and textiles. But, science marches on and on and by the 1950s, carbon tetrachloride was being replaced by tetrachloroethylene which is a chlorinated hydrocarbon more commonly known as perchloroethylene (C2CL4 or PERC).
PERC Health Risks: Today, about 90% of the dry cleaners in the U.S. use PERC, a colorless, clear liquid with that peculiar dry cleaning odor. Although PERC is less flammable and doesn’t cause dry cleaning establishments to burst into flames, it does have significant health risks. If a fire were to occur in one of the 90% of dry cleaning facilities that uses PERC, high temperatures will cause PERC to decompose into hydrogen chloride and phosgene gases (also known as Carbonyl Chloride). The Occupational Safety & Healthy Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Department of Labor warns that chronic exposure by skin contact to hydrogen chloride can cause dermatitis, photosensitization, and dental discoloration and phosgene gas in concentrated dosages is highly toxic, destructive to the respiratory system, and was used as a chemical weapon in World War I.
Respiratory exposure to “high” levels of PERC, even for brief periods, can cause depression of the central nervous system, damage to the liver and kidneys, impaired memory, fatigue, nausea, confusion, dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, and eye, nose and throat irritation. Skin exposure to PERC can cause dry, scaly, and cracked dermatitis. The degree of health risk from PERC exposure depends upon the concentration of PERC, how long the exposure lasts, and the individual’s sensitivity to chemical toxins.
Studies conducted by the National Cancer Institute, the National Toxicology Program and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established PERC as a potential carcinogen and the EPA regulates PERC as a hazardous air pollutant. PERC enters the body when breathed in with air contaminated with PERC or when consumed with PERC-contaminated food or water. Once in the body, PERC can remain stored in fatty tissue.
Of course, workers in dry cleaning shops are at greatest risk. Because PERC can travel through floor, ceiling and wall materials, people living near or co-located in the same building as dry cleaners have also reported respiratory, skin and neurological problems.
PERC Environmental Risks: PERC is also environmentally very unfriendly and when improperly handled can create health and environmental risks in the atmosphere, soil, groundwater, drinking water, and waterways threatening many forms of life. Small amounts of PERC have been shown to be toxic to some aquatic animals where it is stored in their fatty tissues. Small amounts of PERC contaminating soil or irrigation water can also damage or kill many kinds of plants.
Offenders & Culprits: Older dry cleaning shops have traditionally been the worst culprits for PERC dry cleaning pollution. Old machines, leaky pipes, inadequate equipment maintenance, and poor cleaning procedures and processes are responsible for the majority of the PERC pollution. It can escape from older dry cleaning machines and during waste disposal to contaminate and pollute the air and ground water. Most of the PERC used during dry cleaning escapes into the outdoor air through open windows, vents and air-conditioning systems. Some older dry cleaning establishments may still vent PERC fumes directly into the outdoors. When released into the atmosphere, PERC can take several weeks before it decomposes and breaks down into smaller molecules, some of which are also toxic and some are implicated in the breakdown of the ozone layer. Some older dry cleaning shops still dispose of waste waters containing PERC from the dry cleaning machines by pouring it directly down drains into the public sewer systems.
Improvements in Dry Cleaning: Improvements in traditional PERC dry cleaning machines and processes have achievement worthy decreases in PERC pollution. New, fifth generation, dry-to-dry, non-vented, closed-loop, dry cleaning machines with carbon absorbers, refrigerated condensers and residual controls – especially those designed in Germany – have greatly reduced the amount of PERC fluids and even vapors that are accidentally released into the environment. Of course, with features like these, the newest and most environmentally friendly dry cleaning machines must be expensive and beyond the budget of many small, family-owned, neighborhood dry cleaning shops.
The newer dry cleaning machines help capture and recycle much of the PERC used in the dry cleaning process. The EPA estimates there was a 66 percent reduction in emissions between 1990 and 1996. Still, the most recent figures available estimate 44,000 tons of PERC are released into the air yearly.
These new dry cleaning machines significantly reduce the health risks to dry cleaning shop workers and the environmental pollution, but some residual chemical cleaning toxins will still remain in the clothing and present health concerns to people with chemical sensitivities and with people who want to reduce the number of chemical toxins that come into close contact with their skin and respiratory system. Dr. Allan Magaziner, a family practice physician who specializes in environmental medicine, said people with chemical sensitivities often develop headaches, rashes and nausea when wearing dry cleaned garments. "We tell patients to take the plastic off their clothes and let them air out before putting them in their closets," said Dr. Magaziner. If you are chemically sensitive to PERC and conventional dry cleaned garments, you should hang them in a protected space outside your living space to remove the off-gassed PERC vapors as far away as possible.
There are alternatives to conventional dry cleaning but first it is helpful to examine why we can’t just chuck everything into the Laundromat washing machine like a fraternity freshman.
The “Dry Clean Only” Tag: To protect the quality, colors, size and garment life, manufacturers often recommend that some clothing only be dry cleaned. Water expands most natural and cellulose fibers (such as wool and cotton), while petroleum-based solvents (such as PERC) do not cause fibers to swell or change the fiber properties. Some natural fibers also become weaker when they expand in water and the agitating action during the wash cycle can distort the shape of garments by pulling and stretching fibers in new and unexpected ways. Drying is usually the most damaging process and when many natural and cellulose fibers dry, especially in high temperatures in a clothes dryer, after having been expanded during the wash cycle when they soak in water, they tend to wrinkle, lose their shape and shrink.
Dry cleaners are also specialists in knowing how to remove differing stains depending upon the type of fabric. The first step in the dry cleaning process is to sort garments according to fabrics and the degree to which the garment is soiled. Clothing with special stains are spot cleaned by hand with a variety of cleaning solvents depending upon the type of stain and the type of fabric. Many of the spotting solvents commonly used are even more toxic and harmful than PERC. Garments of similar fabrics and weights are then loaded into dry cleaning machines for cleaning and drying, and then pressed, folded or hung as requested.
Dry Cleaning Alternatives: New, healthier and more environmentally-friendly cleaning technologies are beginning to emerge, especially in Europe which always seems to be several steps ahead of the U.S. in health and environmental issues.
- Wet Cleaning. One of these “green” cleaning alternatives is wet cleaning – immersing the garments in water rather than
chemical solvents such as PERC and then using specially designed wet
cleaning, drying and stretching machines and processes to eliminate some
of the problems which drove people to use dry cleaning rather than a
conventional washing machine in the first place. Studies report that wet cleaning is able
to safely clean 50% to 70% of “dry clean only” garments including leather,
suede, woolens, silk, angora, cashmere, and rayons.
Wet Cleaning uses specially formulated eco-friendly, biodegradable detergents and soaps. The temperatures of the water, the degree of agitation during the wash cycle, and the moisture content and temperatures during the drying are computer monitored and regulated to prevent shrinkage, damage to the fibers, loss and running of dyes, and loss of shape of the garment. Spotting and hand cleaning of stains is still an important step in the beginning of the cleaning process but green alternatives use cleaners made with enzymes, peptides (which are short chain amino acids), and eco-friendly detergents.
Disadvantages of Wet Cleaning. Wet cleaning requires a thorough and extensive understanding of fabrics and state-of-the-art computerized wet cleaning machines to prevent transforming that favorite silk suit into lumpy, color-streaked, water-stained, couture chaos that only Mr. Blackwell could love. Also, wet cleaning detergents and additives usually are drained directly into the public sewers along with large quantities of wastewater. The potential environmental effects of some of the new wet cleaning detergents and additives are unknown. These are not products that you can buy at your local co-op or natural food store. Wet cleaning is a very water-intensive and labor-intensive process.
Compared with dry cleaning, wet cleaning will also cause more fabric deterioration resulting in some felting, loss of luster, loss of shape, and color bleeding or color dulling.
- Silicon-based Cleaning. This is a new technology that is just
being introduced in some cleaning chain stores such as Green Earth Cleaning that
uses a clear, odorless, non-toxic,
silicone-based solvent (known as a
siloxane) rather than PERC. Green
Earth Cleaning has partnered with General Electrics silicon division to
develop the cleaning process and to create a patented,
environmentally-safe detergent called J101 for the new silicon solvent.
The patented Green Earth Cleaning System is reported to be environmentally safe. Accidental silicone solution spills decompose into sand, water and carbon dioxide and do not release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which are deleterious to the ozone layer. The silicone cleaning solution does not require regulation under any of the hazardous waste laws and it does not present the health risks that PERC and other petroleum-based cleaning solvents pose. People with chemical sensitivities to dry cleaning are reported to be able to use the silicon-based Green Earth Cleaning system without problems.
Garments cleaned with the Green Earth Cleaning System are reported to leave clothes soft, fresh-smelling rather than chemically odorous, and colors are bright and clear. It seems that the silicone cleaning solutions also do not have the problems of shrinkage, fabric deterioration, and colors running or fading that wet cleaning can have.
The International Fabricare Institute was contracted by Green Earth Cleaning to evaluate their silicon-based cleaning system and compare it with traditional PERC dry cleaning. Their study found that the Green Earth Cleaning system achieved a cleaning performance comparable to PERC dry cleaning in removing stains and soils across a wide spectrum of fabrics, maintaining color fastness and resisting dye staining, and maintaining fabric hand and feel.
But the Green Earth Cleaning System is not all good news. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for silicone siloxanes, the primary cleaning solvent used in the Green Earth Cleaning System, states that silicone siloxanes may "generate formaldehyde at temperatures greater than 150 C (300 F)." The MSDS also reports that female rats breathing very high levels (160 ppm) of decamthylcyclopentasiloxane for 24 months developed increased liver weights which returned to normal when the female rats were removed from high levels of decamthylcyclopentasiloxane. Typical levels of decamthylcyclopentasiloxane in industrial work environments are 5 to 10 ppm. Stephanie Riesenman reported on research conducted by the Silicones Environmental Health and Safety Council linking high levels of decamthylcyclopentasiloxane to "an increased prevalence of uterine tumors" in rats.
We have not tried the silicon solvent Green Earth Cleaning but we intend to. We hope that their cleaning lives up to the promise. If you have tried Green Earth Cleaning, please let us know. There are many Green Earth Cleaning franchises around the country that you can find here.
- Liquid Carbon Dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is the stuff that we
breathe out. CO2 is a colorless,
tasteless, odorless gas that occurs naturally in the environment. This
carbon dioxide for garment cleaning has been pressurized until it becomes
a liquid. Dry ice is solid or frozen carbon dioxide. The production or use of liquid CO2 in
this cleaning process does not create or release any greenhouse gases. Carbon Dioxide cleaning can be used for
all “dry clean only” fabrics and it provides longer garment life, brighter
colors and is odor-free. CO2
cleaning is non-toxic and has very low flammability or worker-related
risks. It is claimed as being a
highly energy efficient cleaning method.
During cleaning, the liquid carbon dioxide readily permeates the soiled and stained fabrics to dissolve grease and oils. Other eco friendly surfactants – a material, such as soaps, that can greatly reduce the surface tension of water – are added to the cleaning process to remove water-soluble dirt and to enhance the cleaning process. Special detergents and spotting agents have been developed for CO2 garment cleaning and if you are visiting a garment cleaning shop that uses CO2 ask if their detergents and spotting agents are environmentally friendly.
Several companies, such as Cool Clean Technologies, manufacture CO2 cleaning machines for the garment industry. The machines are more expensive than conventional dry cleaning machines and consumer cleaning costs might be slightly higher than for traditional dry cleaning but the benefit to the environment and the elimination of the health risks to workers, people living near cleaners, and the consumers easily justifies the difference in garment cleaning costs. Interestingly, CO2 cleaning technologies are also used to clean a wide variety of materials from silicon wafers used in computer chips to removing oil from vitamins to degreasing engine components.
- Hydrocarbons. Improved synthetic hydrocarbons such as ExxonMobil Chemical DF-2000 and Chevron Phillips Chemical EcoSolv are being positioned as a “green” alternative to PERC because they biodegrade within days when exposed to air, water and earth. About 15% of the estimated 25,000 dry cleaners in the U.S. have already switched from PERC to synthetic hydrocarbons. Today’s hydrocarbon cleaning agents are actually synthetic descendents of the early cleaning solvents which were made from petroleum distillates before PERC was manufactured. The new alternative hydrocarbons have a higher flash point of 142 degrees F so they are not as explosive as the earlier pre-PERC cleaners and they are odorless rather than smelling like gasoline. But, hydrocarbon solvents are still a Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) that will combine with other air pollutants (specifically oxides of nitrogen) to create ozone smog when it escapes into the air. The EPA and the Coalition for Clean Air have requested additional testing to determine the safety of hydrocarbon solvents to the environment and the toxicity to people.
Thinking of Using a New Alternative Cleaner? If you are considering switching to a new, healthier, greener cleaner, first interview the cleaners about what solvents they use for spotting and how eco-friendly their detergents and soaps are. Ask what they do with their used waste waters to insure that they do not contain any toxins when the waste water enters the public sewers. How do they control shrinkage and color bleeding? If they use any detergents, are they biodegradable and fragrance-free? And if you are using a new cleaner, take a test garment the first time. You really don’t want that new Deborah Lindquist wool tweed bustier with feathers to come back looking like a plucked chicken.
Clean Green & Enjoy.