September 13, 2011

A toxic chemical most commonly used in the dry cleaning process is retained and emitted from clothes that are dry-cleaned. That’s according to researchers who found the chemical perchloroethylene (PCE) remains on clothes after they come home from the dry cleaner and can even build up over time on clothes that are repeatedly dry cleaned. The Environmental Protection Agency has labeled PCE a likely carcinogen.

The Georgetown University study found that PCE, absorbed through inhalation, skin or mouth contact, is slowly emitted from dry-cleaned fabrics even when they are wrapped in plastic. Researchers say the chemical could be expelled at a higher rate in a warm, closed environment such as inside a car or closet.

The new study is the first to quantify the amounts of PCE in dry-cleaned clothing, however, it did not determine if the levels of chemical residue posed a health risk to those wearing the clothes or inhaling the fumes. Georgetown professor Paul Roepe says “The question is, can the levels of PCE we find be absorbed through the skin or inhaled in quantities large enough to harm people. We don’t have the complete answers to those questions, but I think we know enough to suggest that more studies should be done very quickly.”

It’s estimated between 65 and 70 percent of the country’s estimated 25,000 dry cleaning facilities use the solvent PCE. The EPA does not have a specific standard for PCE in clothing but the agency is revisiting its rule.

For tips on finding a safe and eco-friendly dry cleaner, watch this Do Your Part video.