An increasing number of people are waking up to the hazards of conventional dry cleaning chemicals but unfortunately it's also getting increasingly difficult to sort through the hype around so-called safer alternatives. The New York Times has a well-researched article on the growing trend of "green" (or "organic") dry cleaners and about how some of the claims can be misleading.
As we recently covered, the National Cleaners Association is working on rolling out a new five-point rating scale to assess how green cleaning services are. The program is to be hosted by the Green Cleaning Council, but it is to be voluntary and relies on the statements made by individual businesses. So without third-party certification, consumers will have to view the rating with a healthy skepticism. However, there's a chance the process will motivate some business owners to green up their operations (it's supposed to take a comprehensive look at cleaning shops, from transportation to recycling, etc, as well as safety of solvents used).
So what about the solvents? Most of the concerns have centered around PERC (perchloroethylene, which also goes by PCE or tetrachloroethylene), which is used by about 85% of dry cleaners... as well as by others to degrease metal parts. The trouble is that PERC is considered a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and, according to Healthy Child Healthy World is a neurotoxin. Some studies have linked PERC to cancer and reproductive problems among dry cleaner workers (learn more).
In response, some people have opted to clean more clothes at home, washing by hand or with various home cleaning kits. Others are seeking out "green cleaners." However, as the Times points out, the eco-friendly claims of dry cleaners are totally unregulated and nonstandard.
According to the paper's report, many of those advertising safer services have actually only switched out PERC for a similar hydrocarbon solvent, which is still toxic (and only slightly less so than PERC). A few green cleaners offer a liquid carbon dioxide-based cleaner, but the machinery is extremely expensive, so it has not been widely rolled out.
Many greens say "wet cleaning" is the best alternative, which uses sophisticated, computer-controlled machines to gently launder with water and biodegradable solvents. This equipment can also be expensive, though less so than the CO2 method, and requires new training. Wet cleaning isn't necessarily appropriate for every garment, and some cleaners have balked at the liability of using a new procedure on people's sensitive garments.
The Times criticizes the green cleaning industry for not being totally clear and straightforward in explaining these different techniques to the public. Consumers are getting quite used to organic labeling for foods, but the same language and transparency has not transferred to dry cleaning. Consumers may spend more at a so-called green shop only to receive services they didn't bargain on.
Hopefully, the young field will mature with time, and rigorous standards may arise, as with organic foods (of course, the standards will also have to be defended against industry attempts to weaken them).
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