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Is dry cleaning all wet?

Half a century ago, the London if dry cleaning industry ganged up on a German immigrant operating a small cleaning service, threatening to sue him for his seemingly outrageous claim that dry cleaning with chemical solvents damaged clothing by removing its natural oils. Fortunately for modern-day consumers, Edward Friedburg fought off their legal threats and continued to operate his cleaning service, relying on gentle detergents and steam in the place of chemicals.

As it turns out, Friedburg's competition need not have worried. Cleaning with chemical solvents continued to flourish while Friedburg's toxic-free method headed for obscurity. Until recently, that is. A range of hazards that Friedburg could not have anticipated, including groundwater contamination, air pollution in and around cleaners, and chemical accumulation in food have led environmentalists and governments alike to question the process of cleaning clothes with chemicals.

What's all the fuss? To understand, it is helpful to know how dry cleaning works. When you take a suit in to be dry cleaned, it is drenched in a chemical solvent. (Imagining your best suit in a chemical bath might be alarming, but the solvent has the advantage of not expanding the fabric's fibers as much as water would, so the garment still fits when it dries and the colors don't run.) After the chemical-soaked garment is tossed through a modified washing machine, the highly volatile solvent evaporates in a dryer. Then the suit is pressed, hung, and returned to you, bagged in plastic with a vague chemical smell that means some of the solvent is still evaporating.

Compared to paint factories and chemical plants, dry cleaners don't stand out in the lineup of potentially dangerous toxic industries. However, they are illustrative of an important problem facing government environmental agencies: how to enforce hazardous waste regulations in hundreds of thousands of tiny, but nevertheless toxic, businesses.

Unfortunately, small-time waste producers generally are not subject to the same stringent licensing requirements that govern the transferral and disposal of big companies' toxic waste. Inspections are rare because state and local governments typically don't have enough money to focus on the little guys. New York City, for example, has a staff of four inspectors to handle more than 1,700 dry cleaners and other types of businesses, says Judith Schreiber, senior research scientist for the New York State Department of Health.

Abuses are rampant, claim researchers Wendy Pratt and Seymour Schwartz in their book Hazardous Wastes from Small Quantity Generators. Because it's expensive to dispose of used dry cleaning chemicals legally, and there is little chance of getting caught, many dry cleaners play by the rules loosely. They dispose of some waste legally to establish a paper trail and then pour the rest down the drain. Pratt and Schwartz came to this conclusion after interviewing waste management officials in 1987. Illegal dumping poses a serious threat to groundwater supplies.

Even if it is disposed of legally, perchloroethylene, or perc - the solvent used in more than 80 percent of U.S. dry cleaning and most dry cleaning worldwide - poses other potential hazards. At low levels, perc causes dizziness and irritates eyes. In animals, it causes cancer of the kidney and liver, as well as leukemia. Although industry officials deny that the chemical has similar effects in humans, studies in the United States and Sweden have demonstrated that breast and liver cancer are particularly prevalent among dry cleaning workers.

Although the level of safe perc emission is a subject of fierce debate, government occupational health agencies around the world have been tightening their standards, and at least one has labeled perc a carcinogen to be phased out by the end of the century. However, dry cleaners around the world frequently exceed perc limits by operating poorly maintained equipment, not providing adequate ventilation, and not taking proper safety precautions, such as requiring employees to wear respirators.

Sporadic but disturbing evidence shows that buildings near or adjacent to dry cleaners can be subjected to perc air emissions that far exceed safe levels. This is particularly dangerous in urban areas such as New York City where 80 percent of cleaners are situated below high-rises. A British Broadcasting Corporation documentary found perc concentrations of almost twice the disputed "safe" limit in butter in grocery stores near dry cleaners (perc accumulates readily in fatty foods).

A recent study in Albany, New York, found apartments above dry cleaners with air quality "approaching industrial standards," says scientist Judith Schreiber. And unlike plant workers, the apartment tenants can be exposed to perc 24 hours a day. The Albany study found that in some of the apartments, residents were being exposed to between 2,000 and 3,000 times the perc exposure level of a control group.

Perc's potential dangers have lured governments into the act. Germany's environmental protection agency is currently reviewing perc substitutes and improvements in the dry cleaning process that better contain perc. In the United States, after a citizen's group in Oregon launched a fierce campaign, more stringent emissions requirements for dry cleaners were included in the revised Clean Air Act and will go into effect in 1994.

Because most dry cleaners are small businesses, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has realized that simply slapping more regulations on cleaners will be prohibitively expensive and probably ineffective. Instead, the EPA has formed a partnership of sorts with the industry to study cleaning alternatives.

In its search for solutions, the EPA has focused its attention on Friedburg and his half-century-old method - the modern equivalent of which has been named "Ecoclean." What is most promising about the system is the absence of dangerous chemicals. Instead of soaking a garment with solvents as a first step, the Ecoclean process places the item in a warm dryer and tumbles it for 10 minutes to remove moisture and shake out dirt. Then it is inspected for stains, which are removed by hand using natural soaps and solvents. Finally, steam is blown through the garment to remove water-soluble materials such as perspiration, to sterilize it, and to return the fabric's natural moisture. Many fine wool, linen, and silk garments are washed with cool water and soap under the Ecoclean system, contrary to their washing instructions.

Many garments are indiscriminately labeled "Dry Clean Only" by the fashion industry when, in fact, some can actually be cleaned with soap and water for results superior to dry cleaning, according to Friedburg's grandson Richard Simon, the president of Ecoclean.

The Ecoclean process is extremely competitive with traditional dry cleaning, says Simon, who claims that Ecocleaners can match prevailing cleaning prices in any region. But Ecoclean may not be a complete substitute for conventional chemical dry cleaning. "There arc tradeoffs," says EPA economist Ohad Jehassi.

The Ecoclean method has even been tried firsthand by the EPA. William Reilly, the agency's director in the Bush administration, sent his clothes and 1,500 other garments belonging to federal employees from Washington, D.C., up to a special test cleaning site at the New York School of Dry Cleaning in Manhattan over a period of four weeks. The results of the test run will be released soon as part of the agency's overall study of cleaning, which has included other "wet-cleaning" methods and alternative chemical solvents.

As Friedburg's experience with his competitors 60 years ago shows, the cleaning business is resistant to change and jealously guards its market. However, it is becoming clear that the Earth can ill afford another six decades of chemical dry cleaning. But what's an environmentally conscious consumer to do with dirty clothes until tried-and-true alternatives are available?

It's probably best to cut back on the amount of clothes that have to be dry cleaned and to make sure labels aren't exaggerating when they say "Dry Clean Only." In the end, however, the answer lies in overhauling - and "detoxing" - traditional dry cleaning methods. After decades of searching for the best chemical cleaning agent, the dry cleaning industry would do well to consider that the best solution is no solution at all.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Worldwatch Institute
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Title Annotation:environmentally safe methods of dry cleaning
Author:Ryan, Megan
Publication:World Watch
Date:May 1, 1993
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