Is Dry Cleaning All Wet?

By Ryan, Megan | World Watch, May-June 1993 | Go to article overview

Is Dry Cleaning All Wet?


Ryan, Megan, World Watch


Half a century ago, the London if dry cleaning industry ganged up on a German immigrant operating a small cleaning service, threatening to sue him for his seemingly outrageous claim that dry cleaning with chemical solvents damaged clothing by removing its natural oils. Fortunately for modern-day consumers, Edward Friedburg fought off their legal threats and continued to operate his cleaning service, relying on gentle detergents and steam in the place of chemicals.

As it turns out, Friedburg's competition need not have worried. Cleaning with chemical solvents continued to flourish while Friedburg's toxic-free method headed for obscurity. Until recently, that is. A range of hazards that Friedburg could not have anticipated, including groundwater contamination, air pollution in and around cleaners, and chemical accumulation in food have led environmentalists and governments alike to question the process of cleaning clothes with chemicals.

What's all the fuss? To understand, it is helpful to know how dry cleaning works. When you take a suit in to be dry cleaned, it is drenched in a chemical solvent. (Imagining your best suit in a chemical bath might be alarming, but the solvent has the advantage of not expanding the fabric's fibers as much as water would, so the garment still fits when it dries and the colors don't run.) After the chemical-soaked garment is tossed through a modified washing machine, the highly volatile solvent evaporates in a dryer. Then the suit is pressed, hung, and returned to you, bagged in plastic with a vague chemical smell that means some of the solvent is still evaporating.

Compared to paint factories and chemical plants, dry cleaners don't stand out in the lineup of potentially dangerous toxic industries. However, they are illustrative of an important problem facing government environmental agencies: how to enforce hazardous waste regulations in hundreds of thousands of tiny, but nevertheless toxic, businesses.

Unfortunately, small-time waste producers generally are not subject to the same stringent licensing requirements that govern the transferral and disposal of big companies' toxic waste. Inspections are rare because state and local governments typically don't have enough money to focus on the little guys. New York City, for example, has a staff of four inspectors to handle more than 1,700 dry cleaners and other types of businesses, says Judith Schreiber, senior research scientist for the New York State Department of Health.

Abuses are rampant, claim researchers Wendy Pratt and Seymour Schwartz in their book Hazardous Wastes from Small Quantity Generators. Because it's expensive to dispose of used dry cleaning chemicals legally, and there is little chance of getting caught, many dry cleaners play by the rules loosely. They dispose of some waste legally to establish a paper trail and then pour the rest down the drain. Pratt and Schwartz came to this conclusion after interviewing waste management officials in 1987. Illegal dumping poses a serious threat to groundwater supplies.

Even if it is disposed of legally, perchloroethylene, or perc - the solvent used in more than 80 percent of U.S. dry cleaning and most dry cleaning worldwide - poses other potential hazards. At low levels, perc causes dizziness and irritates eyes. In animals, it causes cancer of the kidney and liver, as well as leukemia. Although industry officials deny that the chemical has similar effects in humans, studies in the United States and Sweden have demonstrated that breast and liver cancer are particularly prevalent among dry cleaning workers.

Although the level of safe perc emission is a subject of fierce debate, government occupational health agencies around the world have been tightening their standards, and at least one has labeled perc a carcinogen to be phased out by the end of the century. However, dry cleaners around the world frequently exceed perc limits by operating poorly maintained equipment, not providing adequate ventilation, and not taking proper safety precautions, such as requiring employees to wear respirators. …

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