For today’s modern gent, the corner dry cleaner can seem as indispensable as your Blackberry. But the in-and-out convenience offered by many dry cleaning services could carry with it a price for which goes beyond the few dollars you shell out when you pick up your dress shirts or other clothing. Getting your clothes cleaned without water often involves the use of dangerous chemicals which can have a harmful impact on the environment and your health.
From its early days, dry cleaning has relied on a number of toxic and potentially deadly substances, many of which have thankfully been phased out over the years – for example: carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethane and Stoddard Solvent (all chemicals with known corrosive, abrasive and explosive properties). Today though the demon of the dry cleaning industry remains perchloroethylene (or “perc”), a hazardous substance which has long drawn criticism from health and environmental protection groups.
Currently perc is used as a cleaning agent by approximately 90% of dry cleaners world wide. Although 99.99% of the perc used to clean clothing is reclaimed, even small doses of this substance, when they find a way into the air and local water supplies, can be dangerous. Also trace amounts of it can still remain on your garments after treatment, and according to some sources even having dry cleaned clothing in your car can create a potentially harmful build-up of perc particles. Some states (notably California) have passed legislation either banning the use of perc, or calling for its phasing out over the next several years.
In the meantime though, a number of dry cleaning agents have been developed which could replace perc; D5 being a good example. Dow Chemical, a leading manufacturer of D5 conducted a study where lab rats were exposed to the substance for six hours a day, five days a week (presumably the rats got the weekend off), over the course of two years. Dow scientists found that inhaling D5 fumes lead to a greater risk of developing tumors among female rats; a hazard which was determined to be rat-specific when this study was replicated by the Silicones Environmental, Health and Safety Council, a non-profit trade association. Currently D5 is only used at a few hundred dry cleaning locations throughout the United States and Canada, although it is becoming more popular within the industry.
For the time being, if you’re concerned about how your clothing is treated when you drop it off (and you probably should be), ask your dry cleaner what sort of chemicals they use. Ask if they are safe, and ask if they have ever considered switching to other cleaning agent alternatives. After all, when you take your clothing to the cleaners you should be paying not only convenience but for peace of mind.