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How Green is YOUR cleaner?

Dry cleaners are more common than florists in residential neighborhoods, and are even located inside apartment buildings. So they must be safe, right? Don’t bet your health on it. Dry cleaning is a dangerously outdated industry that often carelessly uses chemicals known to cause cancer in mammals. Our families, our communities, and our environment deserve better. So, by the way, do our clothes.

The 19th century origins of dry cleaning, or "French cleaning," were inauspicious. A maid spilled kerosene on a table clothe, which became cleaner. Her boss, a dye-works owner, ran with the idea to his great profit. Liquid solvents derived from petroleum, or hydrocarbons, were the industry’s standard brews for over half a century. The twentieth century brought more chemical options to the table, notably less flammable chlorinated solvents and then tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene or, more commonly, perc.

The Perc Perps

About 85% of our nation’s 36,000 dry cleaning stores use perc. As environmentalists and parents, we believe that amounts to perpetrating countless chemical assaults on the public.

Perc was the very first chemical designated a carcinogen by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The commission subsequently backed off of that label, but evidence of that initial wisdom has mounted over the decades. Perc is classified as a "probable human carcinogen" by the World Health Organization (WHO), which noted elevated exposure in buildings near dry cleaners with supposedly closed systems in both Europe and America.

Tests on mammals for cancer caused by perc return results of "positive" and "clear evidence," reports the National Toxicology Program. Workers are warned by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor against the dangers of inhaling or touching perc. The WHO confirms that perc damages the liver, kidneys, blood, and central nervous system. Skin and respiratory irritations are common. Yet dry cleaning clients bring clothing home to release perc as a gas for up to 70 days.

Parents of small children and expectant mothers should be especially concerned. Your kid is right; there is a monster in the closet, and it’s perc.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill cautions that even at low concentrations, "women exposed to the substance may develop menstrual problems and spontaneous abortions." The Environmental Protection Agency also reports early evidence of sperm structure and fertility problems. The EPA has demanded that perc be phased out of dry cleaners in residential buildings by 2020.

Perc from dry cleaning and metal degreasing is also present at over 770 Superfund sites, the toxic hot spots that top the EPA’s priority list for emergency cleanup funding. Isn’t there something wrong with wearing a "cleaning" agent against your skin that requires a federal emergency cleanup?

So why does the dry cleaning industry continue to perpetrate chemical assault on the public? Because they are invested. They are running out the clock on their existing machines.

The economics of equipment are daunting for shops opening or expanding – it’s ten times cheaper to buy a used perc machine than to pioneer a new, safer technology like CO2 cleaning. Even new perc machines cost less than a quarter of what it takes for Green Apple Cleaners to buy a CO2 machine. Enormous strides in computer controls over the past decades have also made wet cleaning, using water even on clothing labeled "Dry Clean Only," superior and safe. But that requires an investment in both expensive technology and worker training, as we have done with our specialists.

We think the payoff in employee, customer, environmental health is worth it.

If Only "Organic" Meant Something…

The hard truth is that in the dry cleaning industry, the term "organic" is meaningless as a safeguard for human health and habitat. Substances like perc and hydrocarbons fit the definition of "organic" in chemistry, being carbon based, but not in consumer protection. Food companies must meet strict standards to label their products as organic, but garment care isn’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

If you see "eco," "natural," or "organic" in a dry cleaner’s window, the chances are that what they’re really selling you is premium rate "greenwashing." This can demonstrated by the one of the industry’s largest lobbying group – the National Cleaners Association – starting up a "Green Cleaners Council" where by applicants fill out a form to get a "leaf" rating. With no physical certification conducted or explanation to the consumer of the difference between 1 leaf and 5 leaves, this "consumer education" initiative by the NCA is little more than Professional Greenwashing … Oh did we mention that the members of the NCA are predominantly Perc and Petrolium cleaners!

So what’s behind the "organic" curtain? Stores that aren’t using perc are often using hydrocarbons again. Yes, we’re essentially back to 19th century France. As Judith S. Schreiber, the chief scientist for the Environmental Protection Bureau of the New York State attorney general’s office, told the New York Times, that replacement is "a cleaned-up version of gasoline" that’s not much better for you than perc.

The move away from perc has also brought to the fore silicon compounds like Siloxane D5, or simply D5. The Environmental Protection Agency is already raising awareness of mammal studies that point to possible cancer risks and uterine tumors.

There is no cheap and easy solution, but there are sensible and sensitive ones. It’s been said that if standard dry cleaning were invented in the 21st century, it would be banned. We’re happy to say instead that dry cleaning was reinvented in the 21st century. It’s Green Apple Cleaners, and we care enough to work hard and make educated choices to be better for you, better for your family, and better your environment.