What Is Dry Cleaning?

Fancy clothes are often marked īdry cleaning onlyī. Just what is dry cleaning? How does it differ from regular washing?

Dry cleaning, according to the Consumer Reports book on Cleaning, simply means cleaning with little or no water. This style of cleaning is done on materials that water might harm or shrink. Instead of water and soap, most dry cleaners use perchloroethylene as the cleansing agent. Unfortunately, this is a carcinogen and even low doses have shown to increase the risk of cancer. Higher doses cause even worse problems.

Another commonly used chemical in dry cleaning is tetrachloroethylene. The National Institute of Health reports: "Animal studies, conducted with amounts much higher than typical environmental levels, have shown that tetrachloroethylene can cause liver and kidney damage, liver and kidney cancers, and leukemia (cancer of the tissues that form the white blood cells)."

Very rarely, a cleaner might use petroleum instead. This solvent is a bit less dangerous to humans directly, although far more flammable. Petroleum is considered a hazardous substance and its use is not looked upon fondly by most environmental organizations. For example, "neurotoxic effects lead to organic brain damage". In any case, petroleum tends not to clean as well, and shrinks clothing. That is why most dry cleaners use perchloroethylene despite its dangers.

The Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility urges its readers to "Avoid chemical dry cleaning whenever possible" and warns that "women who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or nursing should avoid any exposure to dry cleaning, including recently dry-cleaned clothes."

One much studied case involving groundwater contamination took place in Woburn, Massachusetts. The water there was found to be contaminated with trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. Studies then correlated the level of a mother's exposure to these chemicals during pregnancy with incidences of childhood leukemia.

Itīs recommended that you dry clean items as little as possible. Donīt dry clean a suit every time you wear it, for example. When you do, be sure to wait a week or so before you wear it again, to give the solvents time to dissipate. Donīt store dry clean items in a childīs room or with pets, who are more sensitive to the chemicals.

The best solution, of course, is to avoid buying items that require dry cleaning. If you really must have something that requires dry cleaning, you can brush it clean between wearings, or hand wash it in soap and water in many cases. You can also look for a Wet Cleaner near you, that performs cleaning in a more safe manner.

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