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Out, Damn Spot! A new alternative to dry cleaning is wiping out toxic chemicals.

AFTER THE Second World War ended, Canadians with Japanese heritage had trouble finding a job in Canada. Many businesses wouldn't hire Japanese-Canadians, so to make ends meet, Susan Langdon's father and his siblings decided to open their own dry cleaning business.

The business that was supposed to provide for their family came with serious risks to their health.

"My father often came home with terrible burns on his hands and arms from the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process and I would ask him about the marks," said Langdon, now the Executive Director of the Toronto Fashion Incubator. "He knew it wasn't safe or healthy but there weren't other options at the time."

What exactly is dry cleaning?

Conventional dry cleaning is the most popular way to wash delicate fabrics and structured garments, such as suit jackets, silk and wool, but it also has some dirty truths.

The fact is dry cleaning isn't dry or clean. It's called dry cleaning because it only uses a chemical solvent as the cleaning agent. The most popular solvent used in over 80 percent of dry cleaners across Canada is called PERC (short for perchloroethylene).

"Dry cleaners have used this chemical since the 1950s, but it has more risks than benefits," said Muhannad Malas, Toxics Program Manager at Environmental Defence. "PERC is a toxic chemical that creates hazardous waste, pollutes soil, air and water, and poses health risks not only to the workers who handle it, but also to consumers and residents living close to dry cleaners."

Despite being identified as one of the "highest concern" substances by Toronto Public Health, "probably carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, "likely a human carcinogen" by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and "toxic" by the Canadian government, PERC is still the most widely used chemical solvent in dry cleaning in Canada. Nearly 30 tonnes (or the weight of eight to ten elephants) of PERC are used every year by dry cleaners in Toronto alone.

Langdon wishes her family had been aware of the risks of PERC a lot earlier. Four of her father's six siblings died from cancer.

"We now know how toxic those chemicals are to inhale and to handle. It's too late for my dad and his siblings but we can start to make a change for the better, to create a safer working environment for those who work in the dry cleaning business," Langdon said.

Professional wet cleaning

The good news is that an effective, safe and environmentally-friendly alternative to dry cleaning already exists: wet cleaning. Not to be confused with home laundering, professional wet cleaning uses small amounts of water and biodegradable soap in computer-controlled machines to clean even the most delicate of fabrics and prevent shrinkage.

The wet cleaning process is much like hand washing, but automated and controlled for the type of fabric, colour and build, such as sequins, pleats, structured garments, etc. These settings adjust water and drying temperatures, control moisture levels, change water and detergent volumes and alter mechanical agitation. Garments are then finished through ironing, pressing and/or steaming.

Unlike dry cleaning, the soapy water that is left over in the machine is not toxic for the environment and human health and can go down the drain to be handled by municipal water treatment facilities. After wet cleaning, the garment is noticeably clean and has no pungent chemical smell because no toxics were used in the process.

Fashion and wet cleaning

The benefits of wet cleaning have sustainable fashion advocates calling for more brands to switch their labels to "Professional Clean Only."

"I stopped buying clothing that instructed 'Dry Clean Only' about 10 years ago when I started Fashion Takes Action," said Kelly Drennan, Founding Executive Director for Fashion Takes Action. "Now I can purchase structured garments, and wools and silks, knowing that there is a safer non-toxic option out there for garment care."

Earlier this year, Environmental Defence launched Rethink Dry Cleaning with support from Live Green Toronto and ChemTRAC to raise awareness about the harmful effects of dry cleaning and the benefits of professional wet cleaning. Environmental Defence is working with Toronto-based fashion industry stakeholders, including designers, boutique owners, professors and incubators, to promote professional wet cleaning to their networks. The goal is to encourage consumers to select wet cleaning and support the dry cleaning industry's transition to a less harmful approach to garment cleaning, and ultimately a greener economy and community.

Protect Canadians from PERC

If a transition to wet cleaning as a sustainable and healthy alternative to PERC is to occur, government action is needed. Under current Canadian regulations, dry cleaners using PERC must follow strict procedures on how to handle the solvent and safely dispose of the hazardous waste. In Canada, only the City of Toronto tracks PERC use and emissions, but even with this reporting, there are still many gaps. Dry cleaners using less than a certain amount of PERC are exempt from reporting to ChemTRAC, the city's toxic reduction program. Municipal data tells us large amounts of PERC emissions are still polluting our air.

"In 2013, 42 percent of the reported PERC used by Toronto's dry cleaners was released into the air. It's clear that Canada needs stronger regulations to protect Canadians and the environment from PERC," said Malas. "We already have an effective and safe alternative with professional wet cleaning. And several other jurisdictions around the world are already taking steps to phase out PERC and promote wet cleaning."

Successfully replacing PERC with professional wet cleaning requires the right policy mix. Financial incentives to replace dry cleaning with wet cleaning equipment, coupled with training programs and public awareness campaigns would increase the transition's success.

The decline of PERC

Canada has only to look south to find examples of how to make this switch. Several jurisdictions in the United States have taken action to protect people's health and the environment from PERC.

California started phasing out PERC in 2003. In some regions of California, new dry cleaners are prohibited from using a PERC system and existing PERC dry cleaners are subject to tightened regulations regarding the usage, handling, and storage of the chemical. By 2023, the state will be PERC-free.

In 2009, a New Jersey government program offered up to $10,000 (US) to dry cleaners to remove their PERC machines from co-located and co-sensitive facilities (such as daycares). They also offered an additional $15,000 (US) to dry cleaners to replace their PERC system with a wet cleaning system.

Also, as of February 2014, all dry cleaners in New York City are required to post the type of chemicals they use. This enables consumers to make informed choices about the type of professional garment care they use, and to learn more about the potential risks associated with the different solvents.

Sneaky "green" dry cleaning

Meanwhile, here in Canada, consumers still have to play a guessing game when finding eco-friendly dry cleaners. Some cleaners claim they're green, but often it's only green washing. Here are some sneaky "green" chemicals that consumers need to look out for:

* Silicone cleaning (Siloxane D5) is often marketed as "green." However, siloxanes used in silicone-based cleaning are environmental pollutants. These solvents are combustable and potentially harmful to aquatic ecosystems.

* Hydrocarbon solvents (also called petroleum solvents), such as DF2000 and EcoSolv are combustable, volatile and toxic. These solvents contribute to smog and nasty air pollution through volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

* Solvair, Solvon, K4, DrySolv and Rynex are just a few other risky alternatives to PERC that are often marketed as green, eco-friendly, and organic.

Sarah Jamal is Toxics Program Coordinator at Environmental Defence. When not at work, you can find Sarah brewing a batch of kombucha, doing yoga, or making DIY health and beauty products. This article is part of a collaborative series between Environmental Defence and Alternatives Journal.

Caption: Black pants being spot treated at Glenforest Cleaners before going into the wet cleaning machine.

Caption: A garment's care label from a U.S. based company Reformation clearly stating that the garments should not be dry cleaned with PERC.
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Title Annotation:wet cleaning
Author:Jamal, Sarah
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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