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Lately, we've noticed that local dry cleaners around the country are touting a service called, "organic dry cleaning." Like anything with the magic "O" word attached, this sounds promising. Or is the consumer just being hung out to dry?
The answer turns out to be a little bit of both. Most dry cleaners rely on toxic solvents to clean clothing, chiefly a chemical called perchloroethylene or perc, which used by more than 75% of all dry cleaners.
Perc excels at removing soils and stains without damaging or shrinking sensitive fabrics. But it’s also a persistent pollutant that has been linked to cancer, liver and nervous system damage, infertility, and hormonal disruption. Organic dry cleaning would seem to promise clean clothes without such risks.
Unfortunately, the term “organic” has no legal definition where dry cleaners are concerned, and its use can refer to any number of cleaning processes – organic or not.
“I think it’s a poor choice of words,” says John Meijer of the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute, an industry trade organization. In too many cases, he says, organic is being used by dry cleaners who are simply employing alternative hydrocarbon solvents. Calling a process that uses alternative hydrocarbons organic is technically accurate because in chemistry any compound based on the element carbon is an “organic” compound. But most of these dry cleaning solvents aren’t all natural.
“You could say most if not all of the solvents are organic in terms of the science definition,” Meijer adds. “But we all know that’s not why [dry cleaners] are putting ‘organic’ on there. It’s a marketing ploy.”
One of the primary hydrocarbon solvents being touted as “organic” is a chemical made by Exxon-Mobil called DF-2000. Exposure to this compound does not appear to cause health effects as severe as those created by perc, but the EPA lists this volatile organic compound as a neurotoxin and few safety studies have been done. A similar alternative is Chevron-Phillips’s EcoSolv, a mixture of chemicals called isoparaffins about which little is known. According to the company’s own Materials Safety Data Sheet on the product, a variety of health effects have been noted after prolonged exposures to EcoSolv, and past tests on related compounds have produced kidney damage in male rats.
Another dry cleaning technology sometimes erroneously or deceptively marketed as "organic" uses a silicon-based chemical called siloxane D5, which is marketed under trade names like GreenEarth. Though trade groups and dry cleaners say this material is environmentally safe, others aren't so sure. A two-year study by manufacturer Dow Corning found a statistically significant increase in the incidence of uterine tumors in female rats regularly exposed to high levels of siloxane D5. GreenEarth maintains that Dow's follow-up research determined that the biological pathway responsible for this cancer risk exists in rats but not human beings. However the EPA has not affirmed that the chemical is safe and is continuing its evaluation. The Canadian government, on the other hand, recently proposed banning siloxane D5, declaring that it meets its criteria for "persistence, bioaccumulation potential and inherent toxicity to nonhuman organisms."
But if you look hard enough, you’ll find some dry cleaners that do offer a process that is eco-friendly. The two most recommended methods are:
- Wet cleaning, which cleans fabrics using carefully controlled amounts of water, special non-toxic biodegradable detergents and computer-operated equipment.
- Carbon dioxide cleaning, a technique that uses high pressure to convert CO2 gas to a liquid that can then act as a carrier for biodegradable soaps. When the wash is done, releasing the pressure turns the CO2 back into a gas, and clothes dry instantly.
These two cleaning methods are significantly safer where human health and the environment are concerned. To be sure your dry cleaner is using one of them, ask the shop owner to detail his or her cleaning methods. Be wary of initiatives like the International Fabricare Institute’s “Certified Environmental Dry Cleaner” program, which means that the cleaner has passed a test demonstrating that they know how to operate their facility in an environmentally responsible way but says nothing about the cleaning methods they may be using.
The EPA also offers a nationwide list (compiled in 2003) of cleaners using wet and/or CO2 cleaning methods. It is available at www.epa.gov/dfe/pubs/garment/gcrg/cleanguide.pdf.