Many local dry cleaners claim to be “green” or “eco-friendly” or “organic,” but the majority actually use the toxic cleaning solvent, perchloroethylene, also known as PERC. It pollutes the air and water and is believed to be a human carcinogen.
PERC also has serious non-cancer health effects. They are mainly neurological, liver, and kidney effects following short-term (a few hours or days) or chronic, long-term inhalation exposure. PERC usually enters the body by inhalation and is stored in fat tissue.
Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its approval of a ban on PERC in all dry cleaning operations in the state of California by 2023—a stringent rule which may help set a new greener standard for the dry cleaning industry nationwide.
But in New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says there are about 2,000 dry cleaning facilities still using PERC solvent, with the majority located nearby in the greater New York City metropolitan area. Altogether they release more than 70,000 pounds of PERC into our New York State air.
The DEC regulates and inspects dry cleaners, setting limits on PERC emissions as well as safety guidelines for their equipment. Meanwhile, the state health department fact sheet on PERC identifies significant health risks from even short term inhalation of the fumes. So if you take your clothes to a cleaner that uses PERC (and you definitely should ask), be sure to air them out when you get them home. Place them near a window for a day or so before putting them away.
Fortunately, there are green alternatives to PERC; for example, Go Green Dry Cleaners on the W. Boston Post Road in Mamaroneck uses a different cleaning process called GreenEarth Cleaning that is perc-free. Owners Michael Koppy and Gary Madrit point out that this process uses safer, liquid silicone to clean clothes. The process is described on their website www.mygogreendrycleaners.com. Go Green is a sister company of Image Cleaners based in upper Westchester. The store in Mamaroneck sends cleaning off-site to a central location.
You can also look for cleaners that use a “wet-cleaning process”– a method used by Embassy Cleaners with stores in Larchmont and Scarsdale. Wet cleaning is perc-free.
“ We are the first dry cleaner in Westchester County to offer wet cleaning that is a 100% ecological cleaning process,” says Andrew Rivkin, president and owner of Embassy Cleaners. Rivkin added that Embassy invested in new equipment for wet cleaning in 1995 and has years of experience using it.
In addition to utilizing water in their wet cleaning process, Embassy Cleaners also uses biodegradable soaps as part of their commitment to environmentally responsible practices.
Besides using a perc-free cleaner, you can avoid risks by limiting the amount of dry cleaning that you do. Consumer Reports advises that many delicate “dry clean only” items actually can be washed at home by hand. In general, it’s best to use cool water and a mild liquid soap. Gently squeeze or wring out the water and lay flat to dry. Even if the label says “dry clean only,” you can usually do it yourself.
What do you think? Is a green cleaner important to you?
Joyce H. Newman is an Emmy Award-winning environmental journalist, educator, and gardener. She holds a Certificate in Horticulture from The New York Botanical Garden, and is a tour guide there.