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From the Townsend Letter
June 2007

Health Risks & Environmental Issues:
Dry Cleaning Risks/Safer Alternatives
by Rose Marie Williams, MA

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Governmental regulations get tighter each decade as we learn more about the environmental hazards and increased health risks associated with dry-cleaning chemicals. Industry representatives continue to deny any adverse health effects. Several years ago, this writer was delighted to find a local proprietor who had switched her entire business to "wet-cleaning" and could successfully clean any garment brought to her shop. Shortly after purchasing a new "wet" machine for $40,000, her old chemical machine ceased to function. The next day she was scheduled for an inspection by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to check for compliance in proper handling, storage, and disposal of the dry-cleaning chemicals (with hefty fines for violators). She decided then and there not to replace the $80,000 chemical machine. She would no longer need gloves, masks, monitoring devices, secure containers, or a special "vapor" room. She was thrilled to be free of further EPA inspections and to provide a healthier workplace for herself and her employees. The Cancer Awareness Coalition, Inc., a grassroots organization with which I am affiliated, decided to present this new environmentally friendly business with its annual Earth Day Award.

Dry cleaningHistory
The process of using petroleum-based solvents to clean clothes was discovered in the mid-1800s by a French dye-works owner, Jean Baptiste Jolly. He noticed how clean a tablecloth looked after an accidental spill of kerosene. He then developed a service to clean other people's clothing using solvents instead of water and referred to it as "dry-cleaning." Early fires and explosions let to heavy regulations of dry-cleaners. Gasoline and kerosene, the first solvents used, were later replaced with less flammable chemicals.1

Tetrachloroethylene or perchloroethylene, commonly known as "PERC," was considered an ideal solvent because it is stable, non-flammable, gentle to most fabrics, and an excellent cleaner. PERC was first used in the 1920s as a metal cleaner in Germany. It was found to dissolve dirt from a wool suit without harming the garment, and best of all, it did not explode.2 Dow Chemical and Imperial Chemical Industries recognized a good thing when they saw it. PERC happens to be a by-product of the manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used in Styrofoam, air-conditioning, and spray propellants until they were banned in 1996 for eroding the earth's ozone layer.2

PERC Profile
Tetrachloroethylene is used as a dry-cleaning solvent and in consumer products such as paint and spot removers, water repellants, brake and wood cleaners, glues, and suede protectors. It is also known as perchloroethylene, PCE, perclene, and perchlor. In the dry-cleaning industry it is most commonly referred to as PERC.3,4

At room temperature, PERC is a colorless liquid that readily evaporates into air. Evaporation from industrial and dry-cleaning facilities contaminates air and ground water, from which many communities get their drinking water. As late as the mid-1980s, it was legal to dispose of excess PERC by pouring it down the drain. Now, it must be handled as hazardous waste – at great expense to shop owners. How many businesses still pour it down the drain is unknown. PERC evaporates into air from dry-cleaned clothes or from applications of spot removers. Poorly ventilated areas will have higher concentrations of PERC.2,3

Health Risks
PERC enters the bloodstream via inhalation and can be stored in fat, liver, and brain tissue. A New York State Fact Sheet on PERC indicates it can also be absorbed via skin contact from contaminated soil, but the average consumer is more likely to have skin contact with chemical residue in dry-cleaned clothing than with contaminated soil.
According to a 1996 analysis by Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports), one of 6,700 people who wear freshly dry-cleaned garments at least once a week could be expected to get cancer over their lifetime from inhaling PERC fumes left in the fabric.2,3

PERC can have a negative effect on the central nervous system, kidney, liver, and reproductive systems of humans and animals, depending on the length and intensity of exposure. Observations on the effects of short-term (less than 14 days) exposure to PERC in animals have shown the following: damage to fetus, reduced body weight of mother, behavior changes, and liver damage. Short-term exposure in humans has caused dizziness, headache, sleepiness, lightheadedness, poor balance, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. Visual impairment, reduced test scores, attention deficit, reaction time, and eye-hand coordination problems have also been observed. Acute high-level PERC exposures have been associated with blindness and child death.3,4

Long-term exposure (greater than 14 days) in animals has resulted in kidney tumors, leukemia, liver tumors, and changes in brain chemistry. Observed risks in humans includes reduced visual perception; learning, memory, and attention impairment; and liver and kidney damage (in dry-cleaning workers).3

There may be an increased risk of esophagus and bladder cancers and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma from PERC exposure. Reproductive risks include spontaneous abortion, menstrual and sperm disorders, and reduced fertility. Cancers of the cervix, tongue, and lung showed a less clear association with PERC exposure. The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) recommends the average air level in residential buildings not exceed 100 micrograms of PERC per cubic meter of air. (Questions about PERC can be directed to the NYSDOH by calling 800-458-1158 Ext. 2-7800.)3

PERC can be passed into breast milk from a woman's environmental exposure to the toxic chemical, though a greater risk is from occupational exposures. When volatile chemicals are inhaled, they are readily absorbed and circulated by the bloodstream. Lipophilic chemicals move from blood into fat tissue, where they can be stored for long periods of time and easily transported into breast milk. Tetrachloroethylene is one of many solvents that escapes odor detection until levels exceed suitable indoor air quality guidelines.5,6

Health Studies
A 1991 study by the NYSDOH found elevated levels of PERC in dry-cleaning facilities and other locations in the same building such as residential apartments and offices. Apartments located above the dry-cleaning businesses had substantially elevated concentrations of the chemical. Samples of breath, urine, blood, and breast milk also showed presence of the volatile solvent. The study came about because of health complaints from residents living above dry-cleaning establishments. Studies also found high levels of PERC in butter and other fatty foods in grocery and convenience stores located next to dry-cleaning facilities.2,6,7

EPA Regulations
The EPA has been increasingly concerned about risks associated with PERC. In July 2006, the agency again tightened air toxics requirements for all dry-cleaners using perchloroethylene, requiring businesses to further reduce PERC emissions. The new regulations require the elimination of transfer machines, which allow greater amounts of PERC to escape when wet clothes are "transferred" to a different machine for drying. Newer equipment allows cleaning and drying in the same machine.8

Shop owners are required to do monthly monitoring using specialized sensors to detect PERC leaks, repair all leaks, and maintain thorough records. Businesses located in residential buildings must phase out PERC entirely, and all existing PERC machines must be removed from residential buildings by December 21, 2020 and replaced with non-PERC equipment.8

The scientific community knew as early as the 1970s that PERC caused liver cancer in mice; for that reason, the EPA classified it as a carcinogen in high doses. EPA scientists earnestly began researching risks associated with PERC exposure in the 1980s and made repeated attempts to better protect the environment and human health from this toxic chemical.2

Investigative journalist and author Dan Fagin describes federal officials as being "mired in the hopeless mission of placating different interest groups." While the EPA and industry sparred over regulating PERC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer meeting in Lyon, France concluded that new studies of PERC risks should raise its designation from a possible carcinogen to a probable carcinogen.2

In the normal course of negotiating protective legislation, our regulatory agencies must consult with industry stakeholders before making any final declarations. In this case, industry demanded that the EPA's final report eliminate all figures relating to the health risks of PERC, claiming "Media attention would needlessly alarm…employees and customers, and result in significant economic harm to…family-owned-and-operated small businesses," according to a letter signed by Dow Chemical and other business and franchise representatives.2

On the other side, the EPA was getting pressure from Greenpeace to reveal the figures on health risks to the public. The final figures were constructed to be somewhat vague; originally, however, the cancer risks were shown to be one in ten for dry-cleaning workers and one in 10,000 for the public at-large. While industry's influence was slowing EPA's efforts to protect American workers and consumers, the German government enacted strict rules requiring PERC fumes to be as low as one-tenth what the US government allowed, thereby encouraging alternative PERC-free technology. Another problem with traditional dry-cleaning is that leftover solvents and residues that are cooked down or distilled into a muck must be handled as hazardous waste.1,2

California Bans PERC
The state of California has taken the lead role in passing the nation's first statewide ban on toxic dry-cleaning chemicals and equipment. PERC will be phased out beginning 2008. Dry-cleaners located in residential buildings must remove PERC machines by July 2010, and by 2023, dry-cleaning machines that use PERC will no longer be allowed in the state. Health advocates are pushing for an earlier timetable to be applied to cleaners located near schools, daycare centers, medical buildings, and retirement homes.9

Pressure is on, and the dry-cleaning industry is making strides toward safer procedures. Approximately 85% of dry-cleaning establishments still use PERC. However, a growing number of businesses around the country are introducing "Green Earth®," "eco-friendly," and plain old "water" cleaning, which can successfully clean silks, wools, and – with the right professional – even leather. Look for my follow-up column on safer dry-cleaning options in the next issue of the Townsend Letter.

Rose Marie Williams, MA
156 Sparkling Ridge Road
New Paltz, New York 12561

1. Dry cleaning. Available at: Accessed March 14, 2007.
(June 2007 note: Try
2. Fagin, D, Lavelle, M.
Toxic Deception, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press; 1999.
3. Fact Sheet – Tetrachloroethene (Perc) in Indoor and Outdoor Air. New York State Dept. of Health. May 2003. Available at: Accessed April 4, 2007.
4. Dry cleaning chemicals. Available at: Accessed March 8, 2007.
(June 2007: Link not valid. Try
5. Schreiber, J, Hudnell, HK, Geller, A, et al. Apartment residents' and day care workers' exposure to tetrachloroethylene and deficits in visual contrast sensitivity. Environmental Health Perspectives (
Jrnl Nat'l Inst Enviro Health Sci). July 2002; 110 (7): 656.
6. Schreiber, J. Parents worried about breast milk contamination.
Children's Environmental Health (NYS Office of Atty Gen, Environ Protection Brd). Oct 2001; 48 (5):1113-1124.
7. New York State Dry Cleaner Survey. New York State Department of Health, Bureau Toxic Substance Assessment. November 1993.
8. Fact Sheet – Final Amendments to Air Toxics Standards for Perchloroethylene Dry Cleaners (US EPA). Available at: Accessed April 4, 2007.
9. Young S. California bans dry-cleaning chemical. Associated Press release. Available at: Accessed April 4, 2007.

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