Linda Greer, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council
Have you ever noticed employees at the dry cleaner wearing masks? They have good reason. Perchloroethylene, known as perc, a chemical used by almost all dry cleaners, can damage the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver, and it can affect coordination and possibly cause cancer and reproductive difficulties. Even if you don't work at the cleaner, its chemicals can harm you. Although the risks from less exposure are lower, there's concern about the dose and timing of the exposure; for example, certain chemicals cause problems during fetal development. The point is, there are safer alternatives.
Look for places that offer either carbon dioxide cleaning or professional wet cleaning. (These are usually stand-alone facilities; the services likely aren't offered by traditional perc cleaners.) The former uses CO2 that has been pressurized into a solvent to attack stains. Wet cleaning uses mild detergents and machines carefully programmed to target the particular type of fabric -- it's even suitable for delicate fabrics, like silks, and tailored items such as blazers. To find such a cleaner in your area, check nodryclean.com. These facilities are still hard to find in some parts of the country, which is why more of us need to start asking for them.
As consumer demand for greener alternatives has grown, so have the number of quasi- and pseudo-organic cleaning options. Some of the most popular solvents used are DF-2000, Stoddard, PureDry, and EcoSolv. But these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are derived from petroleum -- hardly earth-friendly -- and the only thing that makes them organic is that they're made from carbon.
Whichever dry cleaner you choose, recycle the paraphernalia: Ask the store whether it will take back hangers and plastic; if not, recycle them with your metals and plastic shopping bags.
There's always abstinence. Many clothes marked Dry Clean Only can actually be laundered by hand, or even in the delicate cycle of a machine. When you do wash on a delicate cycle, or any cycle, really, be sure to use cold water; an estimated 25 to 36 percent of a household's hot water use can be attributed to laundry.
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