The Clothes Make the Man… Sick? Greening the Dry Cleaning Industry


Irving Rusinow, May 1941. Coosa Valley, Alabama. Newly completed bunk house over dry cleaning establishment at Childersburg. By 1941, perchloroethylene was recognized as a powerful stain removing agent and had been adopted by dry cleaning operations around the country.


Dry cleaning, despite the name, is not a dry process. Eighty-five percent of dry cleaning operations in the US wash customers’ clothes into a liquid chemical called perchloroethylene, otherwise known as perc.[1] Perc was first synthesized in the early nineteenth century. In the 1930s, it was widely adopted by dry cleaning operations after it was discovered to be an effective stain remover. Despite its widespread use, in recent decades researchers have found that perchloroethylene isn’t safe for us or for the environment. 

Health and Environmental Hazards of Perchloroethylene

So why should we be worried about perc? Perc is a source of air, water, and soil pollution. About 90% of improperly disposed of perc will eventually evaporate into the air, while the other 10% will remain in liquid form. Perc is quite dense, and so it readily moves through soil and can contaminate groundwater.[2] It is toxic to aquatic animals as well as humans.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed perc as a likely human carcinogen, while other organizations, such as the State of California, remove the “likely” from the equation and call it a known carcinogen.[3] Perc can also cause neurological, immune, and kidney problems.[4] According to the EPA, the levels of perc found in the average dress brought home from the cleaner shouldn’t adversely affect the wearer since most of the solvent is removed during the cleaning process.[5] This claim is disputed, however. The National Defenses Resource Council, for instance, cites studies indicating that the level of evaporated perc in the air of cars and homes can exceed safe levels after dry cleaned clothes are brought home.[6]

However, the primary concern with perc is not how it directly affects dry cleaning customers. Since perc accumulates in body fats, removing the source of exposure will not resolve the health risks for persons who have been exposed to the chemical for long periods of time. Perc consequently poses a serious threat to dry cleaning workers and others working and living near these operations. Workers handling perc have been found to have higher rates of esophagal and bladder cancers, as well as a host of other negative health impacts, including reduced fertility rates.[7]

Safe disposal is also a problem. Very low levels of perc contamination can make water undrinkable.[8] In one instance, perc and related chemicals leached into a well in the Crestwood suburb of south Chicago. Crestwood residents unknowingly drank water contaminated with perc for two decades. The suburb is also the location of a cancer cluster. Though it is difficult to distinguish the impact of perc from other cancer risk factors, many of the cancers reported in Crestwood have previously been linked to perc exposure.[9] 

Regulating Perchloroethylene

Many dry cleaning operations have reduced the amount of perc they use in light of these health and environmental concerns.[10] National and local authorities are also taking action. In 2006, the EPA established a plan to phase out the use of the chemical in dry cleaning operations that are housed in residential buildings. This kind of operation accounts for roughly 1,300 cleaners across the country. Under the EPA plan, perc dry cleaning operations in these locations would be phased out by 2020. The plan also implements stricter emission standards and methods for detecting leaks.[11]

In 2012, the EPA revisted the literature on perc, and deemed it more hazardous than their earlier evaluations had suggested.[12] This 2012 report could signal more sweeping changes for the industry than the limited 2006 plan. 

What would more aggressive regulation of perc look like? Several states regulate the chemical more strictly, and may provide models for future national regulations. California banned the sale of new machines that use perc after 2007, and have implemented a series of other regulations that will effectively phase out the chemical in dry cleaning operations after 2023.[13] In the wake of revelations about the possible link between the cancer cluster in Crestwood and groundwater contamination, the state of Illinois has also moved to phase out perc. New perc machines were banned in 2010, and operations located in residential buildings were to be relocated by 2013. The chemical will be banned completely in the state by 2026. Illinois’ program also includes the clean up of roughly 900 contaminated sites and a grant program for dry cleaners to buy non-perc machines. The cost of clean-up operations and grants will be primarily funded by taxes on the industry.[14]

Dry cleaning is, by and large, an industry dominated by small business owners. Many are family owned operations. Several are owned by immigrants and non-native speakers of English. Various state environmental protection agencies and other regional agencies, such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District, have recognized that transitioning away from perc machines will be cost prohibitive for many owners. They have consequently set up grant programs to help dry cleaners purchase non-perc equipment.[15] The EPA and other regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have also published their guides in a variety of languages to better communicate the risks involved and new regulations to non-native speakers who own dry cleaning operations.  

A Greener Cleaner

With the health risks to consumers, workers, and the environment, it’s best to avoid perc dry cleaning. Luckily, perc based dry cleaners are by no means your only option when shopping for professional cleaning, or at least a professional look.

Even though many types of clothes are labeled as dry clean only, it is possible to wash them at home.[16] There are commercial products for sale that can be used in residential washing machines.  One company, The Laundress, specializes in creating earth and budget friendly cleaning options that will ensure the longevity of your professional wear. Their website also includes guides for washing fabrics such as wool, silk, and rayon. If you’re hesitant to wash your wool blazers at home, there are a variety of wet cleaning operations that can wash delicate garments and treat problematic stains. This includes companies such as Greener Cleaner in the Chicago area. 

There are also alternative solvents that dry cleaners can use. Liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) is one option. Though CO2 is a greenhouse gas, the CO2 used in these operations is a by-product of other industrial processes, and so does not add to overall emissions. CO2 machines are far more expensive than perc machines, however, their long term operating costs may be lower.[17] Other options combine liquid CO2 with more environmentally friendly solvents. One such cleaning process is the Solvair Cleaning System.

Greenwashing can be a problem in the professional cleaning industry, so regardless of which option you pursue, make sure to ask questions and find out as much as you can about your cleaner’s operation. 

[1] Perchloroethylene is also known tetrachloroethylene. It’s most commonly used in dry cleaning operations, but is also used in manufacturing processes as a degreasing agent.

[2] “Fact Sheet on Perchloroethylene, also known as Tetrachloroethylene,” US Environmental Protection Agency, February 2012,, accessed 17 July 2013.

[3] Pat Rizzuto and Patrick Ambrosio, “Dry Cleaning Solvent Is Likely Carcinogen, EPA Concludes in First Update Since 1988,” Bloomberg BNA, 13 February 2012,, accessed 17 July 2013. See also: “Tetrachloroethylene (Perchloroethylene) (CASRN: 127-18-4),” US Environmental Protection Agency, 2 February 2012,, accessed 17 July 2013. Perc can be converted to vinyl chloride in anaerobic conditions (vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen, that the EPA says is not safe to consume at any level). Vinyl chloride can also be emitted by PVC and vinyl, which is nonetheless often used in cling wrap products designed for food and several other consumer products.

[4] “Clean By Design: How to Care for the Planet and Your Health While Also Caring for Your Clothes,” National Resources Defense Council, May 2011,, accessed 17 July 2013.

[5] “Fact Sheet on Perchloroethylene, also known as Tetrachloroethylene,” US Environmental Protection Agency, February 2012,, accessed 17 July 2013.

[6] “Clean By Design,” National Resources Defense Council.

[7] “Clean By Design,” National Resources Defense Council; Jane Caldwell, Ruth Lunn, and Avima Ruder, “Tetrachloroethylene (perc, tetra, PCE),” International Agency for Research on Cancer Technical Publication No. 42: Identification of research needs to resolve carcinogenicity of high-priority IARC carcinogens,” June-July 2009, 145-147:, accessed 17 July 2013.

[8] “Fact Sheet on Perchloroethylene, also known as Tetrachloroethylene,” US Environmental Protection Agency.

[9] Michael Hawthorne, “Study finds elevated rates of cancer in Crestwood,” Chicago Tribune, 5 March 2010,, accessed 17 July 2013. A cancer cluster is a region or community with elevated rates of cancer as compared to expected rates based on overall incidence of a particular cancer. Clusters prompt scientists to look for the presence of environmental or genetic factors that might explain the preponderance of diagnoses.

[10] Janet Wilson, “Dry-clean solvent to be phased out,” Los Angeles Times, 26 January 2007,, accessed 17 July 2013.

[11] “Compliance Assistance for Dry Cleaners,” US Environmental Protection Agency, 19 October 2010,, accessed 17 July 2013.

[12] See: “Toxicological Review of Tetrachloroethylene (Perchlorethylene) (CAS No. 127-18-4),” US Environmental Protection Agency, February 2012,, accessed 17 July 2013.

[13] “California Air Resources Board Enacts Perc Phase Out,” California Cleaners Association,, accessed 17 July 2013; Janet Wilson, “Dry-clean solvent to be phased out.”

[14] Michael Hawthorne, “State taking steps to phase out dry cleaning chemical,” Chicago Tribune, 14 March 2010,, accessed 17 July 2013.

[15] For instance, see: “Financial Incentive Grant Program To Assist Dry Cleaners To Purchase Non-Perc Alternative Technologies,” South Coast Air Quality Management District, 12 July 2013,, accessed 17 July 2013;

[16] “About Us,” The Laundress,, accessed 17 July 2013.

[17] “Case Study: Liquid Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Surfactant System For Garment Care,” US Environmental Protection Agency, 1 February 2013,, accessed 17 July 2013.

Shannon recently completed a master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the religious dimensions of social and environmental justice movements in the twentieth-century American South. Before moving to North Carolina, Shannon...
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