The health effects of perc depend upon the level of exposure. People exposed to high levels of perc (individuals working in or living next to a dry cleaning facility) may experience symptoms ranging from dizziness and nausea to skin, lung, and eye irritation to liver damage and respiratory failure. Low levels of exposure may carry risks as well. When laboratory animals were exposed to perc the effects on developing fetuses included altered growth, birth defects, and death. Perc has also been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals and studies of dry cleaning workers suggest an increased risk for certain types of cancers. Due to such health concerns perc is banned in several countries and California is in the process of phasing it out completely by 2023.
Perc also poses an environmental concern as it can get into the air, soil, and water during most phases of the dry cleaning process. Once it's released into the air, perc remains in the atmosphere for several weeks before breaking down into other chemicals – some being toxic and others suspected of depleting the ozone. Perc, in its liquid form, can seep into soil. It is known to be toxic to plants and significant amounts of perc have been found in dry cleaning waste (considered a hazardous waste by the EPA). When it seeps through the ground perc can contaminate water supplies, including drinking water (there is an EPA limit on the amount of perc acceptable in drinking water). Perc has also proven toxic to aquatic animals who can store it in their fatty tissue.
Alternatives to Traditional Dry Cleaning
There are a some options for people wanting to avoid the health and environmental effects of perc dry cleaning.
“Green” or “Organic” Dry Cleaning. If you see “organic dry cleaning” advertised, ask some questions to find out what exactly that means. Many perc alternatives are petroleum-based solvents, the most popular being a chemical called DF-2000. Because it contains a chain of carbon, DF-2000 is scientifically classified as “organic.” By the same reasoning, gasoline and perc are organic. So when you see a dry cleaner advertising all-natural, green, or organic dry cleaning, they may very likely be using DF-2000 which is classified as a VOC and is listed by the EPA as a neurotoxin and skin and eye irritant for workers. Another perc alternative is a silicone-based chemical called GreenEarth. California’s Air Resources Board studied GreenEarth for 18 months and decided that it did not qualify for a non-toxic alternative dry cleaning solvent grant program, but it did qualify it as an acceptable dry cleaning solvent alternative.
Professional Wet Cleaning. Most dry cleaners offer a process called wet cleaning where “dry clean only” clothes are washed using computerized washers and dryers and special cleaning solutions. The EPA calls wet cleaning a “viable and environmentally-preferable clothes cleaning technology.” It uses no hazardous chemicals and generates no hazardous waste or air pollution. Wet cleaning has proven less effective than silicone-solvent based dry cleaning, but just as effective or better than perc dry cleaning.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Cleaning. Carbon dioxide cleaning uses CO2 with high pressure, converting it into a liquid that can act as a carrier of biodegradable soaps, just as water would work with detergents in a washing machine. Afterward the CO2 turns back into a gas (much of which is reused) and the clothes dry instantly. The CO2 used in this process is the captured by-product of existing industrial processes. So, instead of being released into the atmosphere, CO2 is re-purposed as a cleaning agent. According to Consumer Reports, CO2 cleaning is more effective than GreenEarth cleaning (a close second), professional wet cleaning and perc dry cleaning. Unfortunately, CO2 cleaning is not yet widely available.
Home Dry Cleaning Kits. For clothes that are not heavily soiled, a home dry cleaning kit is an inexpensive alternative. These kits still involve chemicals, but until non-perc dry cleaning becomes more widely available, they're a a reasonable alternative.
Steam. Lightly soiled items can be steam cleaned in your dryer. Simply place the item in the dryer with a damp towel and run a normal cycle.
Avoid this dilemma all together. Steering clear of “dry clean only” fabrics will help you save money and avoid dry cleaning chemicals. Many of the dry clean items you currently own can be safely washed at home. Special fabrics, such as silk and suede, need special cleaning, but most other fabrics are sturdy enough to withstand being washed by hand or in a washing machine's gentle cycle with mild detergent.
If you must use a traditional dry cleaner, make sure to air out items outside before bringing them indoors. Hopefully, with time, safe perc alternatives will become more widely available.