Dry Cleaning Chemicals – What You Should Know About The Health Risks

By: Sapna Fliedner MSN, HHC

Years ago when I lived in New York, I remember reading the front page of the N.Y Times. It stated that there was a high incidence of cancer on the upper east side and parts of Long Island. For years, they couldn’t figure out why people in these areas had high areas of cancer. They finally traced it to dry cleaning chemicals. Either these people had used extensive dry cleaning on the clothes they wore, or lived directly above dry cleaners or these dry cleaning chemicals were found in the water they consumed. I never forgot that article. I wish I had it to share with you but that was 15 years ago.

Even recent studies still show that a cleaning agent used at dry cleaners poses serious health risks to people of all ages. Yet, I still know a huge population of people are still dry-cleaning their clothes. It has been shown in both lab tests and real-life case studies that living near dry cleaners or even using dry cleaning regularly can raise your risk of cancer.

Dry cleaning uses a chemical called tetrachloroethylene. It is also known as perchlorethylene, or “perc.” Perc was originally developed and used for degreasing metals. It is also found in some types of paint, water repellent material, spot removers, glue and wood cleaners. At room temperature it’s a colorless liquid, but when heated to high temperatures it becomes a gas and can be inhaled. Dry cleaners use perc to remove grease, oil and fat from clothes without shrinking the fabric.

Perc can enter the body as a gas, a liquid, in food or contact with the skin. With dry cleaners, the biggest risk is through inhalation. When perc in its gaseous form is inhaled, it enters the lungs and from there passes throughout the body through the blood.

Recently, the US Environmental Protection Agency has classified it as a hazardous air pollutant. The EPA, World Health Organization and International Agency for Research on Cancer all list it as a possible carcinogen (it’s been known to be a cancer-causing agent in animals for years). Greenpeace states that more than a million people in the US are at risk.

Studies conducted by the New York State Department of Health in 1996 showed that residents who lived over dry cleaners showed high levels of perc in their blood, urine, breast tissue and breast milk.  Residents of a building that housed a dry cleaner had to be moved out because of the fumes from a spill of perc in one of the cleaning machines. One of the researchers, Dr. Judith S. Schreiber, predicts that perc could raise cancer risks for babies that are breastfed in buildings that also contain dry cleaners. The owner of a green dry cleaner told me the story of a woman whose baby got oral cancer. It was found that she was a working woman who regularly dry-cleaned her silk shirts. This chemical lay directly on her skin as her baby took this chemical in during breastfeeding.

Studies by nonprofit organization Consumers Union showed that levels of perc found in apartments above dry cleaners present “clear hazards to the residents’ health.” In a survey of New York City apartments located in buildings with dry cleaners found that the level of perc in the residences far exceeded state health guidelines. Other studies by the organization claim that a person who wears dry cleaned clothes every week for 40 years could have as much as 150 times what they consider “negligible risk.”

Laboratory experiments show that long term exposure to perc can damage the central nervous system, harm the kidney and liver, affect the reproductive system and possibly cause cancer. Cancers associated include cancers of the esophagus, bladder and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Reproductive effects associated with exposure included increased risks of spontaneous abortion, menstrual and sperm disorders and reduced fertility. Short term exposure causes headaches, nausea, dizziness, loss of balance, sleepiness and slight visual impairment. Contact with the skin causes rashes and irritation. These symptoms have been found among people who live near dry cleaners or work at dry cleaners. Short term symptoms stop when they are no longer exposed to perc.

Who Is At Risk?

Perc is a risk for everyone. Until the 1980’s, there was no regulation for dumping chemicals, and it is believed that dry cleaners may have dumped untold amounts of perc into the local water supply. This may have caused numerous health problems with both the drinking water and the evaporated water.

Although everyone is at risk, there are some groups who are at more risk than others, such as:

– People who live near dry cleaners. This group of people has shown the highest rate of symptoms from perc.
– People who work at dry cleaners. This group also is at very high risk of long-term exposure.
– People who live near what used to be a dry cleaner. Perc can remain in the groundwater.
– People who regularly get their clothes dry cleaned. Studies have shown that people who get their clothes dry cleaned twice a week have significantly higher rates of cancer. Perc can stay in the clothes as residue and even affect others in the household.
– Women who are nursing. Perc has been found in the breast milk of women who live near dry cleaners.
– Infants and small children, who are more susceptible to all health risks.

We are just now starting to understand the risks of perc. Some countries have already passed legislation to regulate perc more closely.

What Can You Do?

Stop using the dry cleaners. Wet clean everything and use all natural, non-toxic, green cleaners. It’s simply too high of a risk to keep getting your clothes dry cleaned. Even bringing dry-cleaned clothes home is risky. EPA studies have found that people who reported visiting a dry-cleaning shop showed twice as much perc in their breath, on average, than other people. Perc also remained elevated in a home for as long as 1 week after bringing home newly dry-cleaned clothes.

Wear cotton clothes as much as possible that don’t require dry-cleaning. This is what our family does.

If you still need to dry clean some delicate silks and fancy clothing, I highly recommend that you find a green dry cleaner. They use wet-clean methods. You wouldn’t think the wet clean removes the stains, but it does.

If you live near a dry cleaner or a place that used to be a dry cleaner, you should get the air in your home tested for perc. It also might be well worth it to consider moving. This might seem like a difficult option, but studies have shown that people who live near dry cleaners are at the highest risk. Even after PERC is phased out at a site, the chemical can linger. In October 1997, a school located in a former dry cleaning plant in Harlem closed after tests found perc levels above state guidelines, despite venting. Perc had saturated the soil 20 feet below the double concrete floor.

Perc is now known without a doubt to pose health risks to us and our children. In the future, it may be banned or carefully regulated, but now there is no such regulation. Avoid dry cleaning and you may save the health of yourself and your family.

Sources

“Consumers Union Study Finds New Dry Cleaning Machines Produce Hazardous Levels Of Solvent Fumes,” The Free Library – http://www.thefreelibrary.com/CONSUMERS+UNION+STUDY+FINDS+NEW+DRY+CLEANING+MACHINES+PRODUCE…-a017420166

New York Department of Health “Tetrachloroethene (PERC) in Indoor and Outdoor Air – Fact Sheet” – http://www.health.state.ny.us/environmental/chemicals/tetrachloroethene/index.htm

“Dry Cleaning Hazards,” Ecomall – http://www.ecomall.com/greenshopping/dry.htm

Ebbert, Kristin, “How Clean is Dry Cleaning?” The Green Guide #46, Friday, June 22, 2007, http://healthychild.org/blog/comments/greenwashing_how_clean_is_dry_cleaning/

“The hazards of dry cleaning,” by Ask an Organic Mom, The Daily Green, Fri Oct 31, 2008 – http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/life/the-hazards-of-dry-cleaning-300181/

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