Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The healthiest approach to dry cleaning is avoidance

I have a beautiful pair of velvet pants that I hadn’t worn for almost two years because they were dirty and have a “dry clean only” tag. There are all sorts of “dry clean only” clothes that I wash by hand or on the delicate cycle of the washing machine but I wasn’t willing to chance it on these pants. But at the same time I hated the thought of going to a dry cleaner.

My reason for avoidance? The most common dry cleaning solvent, perchloroethylene (PERC for short), is highly toxic. Aside from the fact that it pollutes waterways, the World Health Organization and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consider PERC a probable carcinogen and Environment Canada considers it a toxin. Exposure to the fumes can cause nervous system disorders and liver and kidney damage. These solvents can make those who work in dry cleaning establishments sick, and can harm you too if you wear clothes that have been dry cleaned.

Dry cleaning solvents rub off on your body and the fumes they give off build up in enclosed spaces (like closets). Inhaling the fumes is unhealthy so be sure to remove the plastic immediately and hang newly dry cleaned clothes on the line for a while before putting them in your closet or putting them on.

The most eco-friendly dry cleaning process uses liquid carbon dioxide. The problem is that CO2 dry cleaners are practically impossible to find and as far as I can tell you’d have to ship your clothes to Kansas to benefit from this cleaning process which is a shame because by all accounts it’s also the most effective and most gentle of all dry cleaning options available.

While we wait for this solution to make its way New Brunswick here is a bit more information on what is available to us locally.

I inquired with the larger dry cleaners in the area and they still use a PERC-based cleaning solution. The new dry cleaner in Rothesay (VIP) is PERC-free but does use a petroleum-based solvent that is an environmental toxin, just less toxic than PERC-based solvents. (This is where I ended up taking my pants).

The healthiest approach to dry cleaning (for you and the environment) is to avoid it when possible.

Many “dry clean only” garments can be washed by hand with a gentle detergent like Woolite, or hold up well when washed on the delicate cycle of your clothes washer.

Treat stains on clothing immediately before they set into clothing to reduce the need for dry cleaning, and never iron stained clothing (it cooks the stains in).

Sometimes dry cleaning is more about ironing avoidance. Can you wash some items by hand or on the delicate cycle of your washing machine and then take them in to be pressed?

Think twice abut buying clothes that require dry cleaning.

Also, dry cleaning wrap can go in the blue bins with plastic bags. And one more thing: the terms “organic” and “environmentally friendly” aren’t regulated so businesses can use them with abandon.

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