Yes, we want clean clothes — but not at the expense of our health. When it comes to dry cleaning, in the last decade there’s been a move to avoid “perc,” which is short for tetrachloroethylene, a synthetic, volatile, toxic organic compound.
Most dry cleaners use perc as a solvent in the dry cleaning process. It’s the sweet odor you notice when you enter a dry cleaning facility or take your treated clothes home. Perc is economical and efficient. It’s also dangerous to your health.
The Environmental Protection Agency says:
What are the human health concerns associated with perc?
The extent of any health effects from perc exposure depends on the amount of perc and how long the exposure lasts. People exposed to high levels of perc, even for brief periods, may experience serious symptoms. Those include dizziness, fatigue, headaches, confusion, nausea, and skin, lung, eye and mucous membrane irritation. Repeated exposure to high levels can also irritate the skin, eyes, nose and mouth, and can cause liver damage and respiratory failure. Perc might cause effects at lower levels as well.
Studies in laboratory animals indicate that exposures to high levels of perc can produce effects on the developing fetus that include altered growth, birth defects, and death. While there have been studies of people who are exposed to high levels of perc, the studies are limited and inconclusive. Scientists have not yet determined whether perc exposures can cause such adverse effects in pregnant women as increased incidence of miscarriage or reproductive effects, affect women’s fertility, or affect children born to parents exposed to high levels of perc.
Can perc cause cancer?
According to the EPA: The cancer-causing potential of perc has been extensively investigated. In laboratory studies, perc has been shown to cause cancer in rats and mice when they swallow or inhale it. There is also evidence, from several studies of workers in the laundry and drycleaning industry, suggesting a causal association between perc exposure and elevated risks of certain types of cancer.
Options to Avoid Perc Exposure
- Hand-wash clothes when feasible. See here for tips on hand-washing rayon, silk and wool.
- Use facilities that offer “wet cleaning” or liquid CO2 cleaning. Wet cleaning uses water along with soaps and conditioners to clean; special washers and dryers spin very slowly in the process to protect the clothes. Liquid CO2 is less common due to the high cost of equipment required. Search online for local companies. The greater the public demand, the better chance of cleaners switching to safe methods.
- If you must use traditional dry cleaning on occasion, remove any wrapping and allow the item to air outside before bringing in the home.