Wet Cleaning: What's Old is New
Air Date: Week of August 30, 1996
Chemical drycleaning is seen as risky business by some as the primary chemical used in the process has been linked to health problems. The Greener Cleaner in Chicago is using improved washing machines and detergent to clean clothes with minimal toxicity with a technique known as "wet clean." Terry FitzPatrick of Living on Earth's Northwest bureau in Seattle reports.
CURWOOD: You might not think of your neighborhood dry cleaner as a potential threat to public health, but they're coming under increasing scrutiny because of a toxic chemical used in the dry cleaning machines. The chemical is called perchloroethylene, or PERC, and it's suspected to cause severe health problems. In the past few years dry cleaners have dramatically reduced PERC emissions. But now a unique project in Chicago is investigating whether PERC can be replaced by old fashioned soap and water. We sent Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick to take a look.
(Traffic sounds; horns)
FITZPATRICK: From the street, the Greener Cleaner looks like any neighborhood dry cleaning establishment. But inside, you notice a big difference.
HARGROVE: Everyone that comes through the door remarks about how wonderful it smells here. You smell the clothes; the clothes smell wonderful.
FITZPATRICK: Ann Hargrove runs a cleaning shop that produces no chemical fumes. That's because the Greener Cleaner uses soap and water instead of dry cleaning solvents.
(Sounds of machines)
FITZPATRICK: A newly designed machine allows Hargrove to put delicate fabrics in the wash.
HARGROVE: I can clean anything that says dry clean only. There are very few things I can't do, and the reason I can do it is because I'm able to control the water level, the way it agitates, the RPMs in extraction, and the way I dry it.
FITZPATRICK: The process is called wet cleaning. It uses a specially formulated detergent that Hargrove claims works better than dry cleaning chemicals.
HARGROVE: The prints are brighter. The wools have more luster to them. And that's I think why the people continue to come back.
(An extractor slows down)
FITZPATRICK: The Greener Cleaner is privately owned, but the EPA is funding an analysis of its first year in business. Jo Patton of Chicago's Center for Neighborhood Technology developed the program.
PATTON: We proposed that a critical part of evaluating wet cleaning was to put it through a real world test. That a lab test with garment swatches really wouldn't test whether you could have a profitable business.
(A computer keyboard)
FITZPATRICK: From her computer, Patton tracks every garment washed at the Greener Cleaner.
PATTON: Okay, we've got 13% pants, blouses 7%, then we have...
FITZPATRICK: She also monitors the nuts and bolts of the business: gross receipts, labor costs, customer complaints. This information will be available to the country's 30,000 dry cleaners, some of whom might want to switch from perchloroethylene, or PERC. Dry cleaners have used PERC for decades because it's a proven stain remover that doesn't cause fabric to shrink or colors to run. However, there's growing evidence that PERC can cause serious health problems, including damage to the liver and central nervous system. It might even cause cancer. There's also concern that PERC contamination is spreading beyond dry cleaning establishments, to the air in nearby apartments and the food in nearby grocery stores. PERC can even contaminate household closets, where dry cleaned clothes are kept. The manufacturers of PERC acknowledge it's dangerous, but not at these short-term or low-level exposures. Steve Risotto directs the Center for Emissions Control, an organization funded by PERC manufacturers.
RISOTTO: People exposed to high levels in occupational settings have, you know, passed out, been, you know, been lightheaded, etcetera. It is a chemical that needs to be controlled, and where exposures, individuals' exposures need to be controlled. But it is not a chemical that is so bad that it shouldn't, it can't be used any more or it should not be used any more.
FITZPATRICK: Still, under pressure from the EPA, the dry cleaning industry has cut emissions of PERC by 40%. Bill Seitz, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Cleaners Association, thinks that's enough to protect employees and neighbors. He dismisses attempts to completely replace PERC with water.
SEITZ: If water were as good as everybody says it was, or is, then there'd never be a dry cleaning industry. I mean we exist, the dry cleaning industry, exists because of the limitations of water.
FITZPATRICK: Wet cleaning proponents say their new technology overcomes most of those limitations. But they do admit it can't clean everything.
FITZPATRICK: The Greener Cleaner still has problems with stubborn grease and oil stains. So staffers apply small amounts of industrial spot remover before putting clothes into the wet cleaning machine. They say they can live with a few drops of toxic chemicals if it avoids the need to clean an entire garment with PERC.
FITZPATRICK: Ultimately the final judge of wet cleaning will be the customer. And on this count, the Greener Cleaner seems successful.
MAN: I can't say that I've noticed a difference in the cleaning or the quality. But I mean it's just as good as anything else that we've tried, I think.
WOMAN: Yeah. I mean there are certainly cleaners that are cheaper, but I'm willing to pay a little bit more for things that I feel are safer. And what I like is that the clothes never smell.
FITZPATRICK: Already the Greener Cleaner staff is looking toward the next step in building consumer and industry acceptance for water-based cleaning. They want clothing manufacturers to stop labeling garments "dry clean only." For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick in Chicago.
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