Despite its name, drycleaning is not totally dry. It involves the use of liquid chemicals called solvents that remove most stains from a variety of fabrics. Most drycleaners use perc as their primary solvent. Because the clothes are cleaned in a liquid solution that is mostly perc or some other solvent, with very little water if any, the term "drycleaning" is used to describe the process |
Perchloroethylene, or perc, is the dominant chemical solvent used in drycleaning. It is is a clear, colorless liquid that has a sharp, sweet odor and evaporates quickly. It is an effective cleaning solvent and is used by most professional drycleaners because it removes stains and dirt from all common types of fabrics. Perc usually does not cause clothes to shrink, nor dyes to bleed. Perc is not flammable, unlike solvents commonly used to clean clothes in the 1930's and ‘40's. Since perc can be reused, it is a cost-effective and efficient solvent for cleaning clothes. Perc is also a toxic chemical with both human health and environmental concerns.
Some studies have indicated that perchloroethylene can cause menstrual irregularities, fertility problems, and spontaneous abortions among women who work in the dry cleaning industry. Perchloroethylene residue from dry cleaning processes can also seep into drinking water, causing a variety of problems. For example, many scientists believe perchloroethylene exposure can cause liver or kidney damage. In addition, perchloroethylene has been named a "probable carcinogen" by the International Association for Research on Cancer.
The extent of any health effects from perc exposure depends on the amount of perc and how long the exposure lasts. People exposed to high levels of perc, even for brief periods, may experience serious symptoms. Those include dizziness, fatigue, headaches, confusion, nausea, and skin, lung, eye and mucous membrane irritation. Repeated exposure to high levels can also irritate the skin, eyes, nose and mouth, and can cause liver damage and respiratory failure. Perc might cause effects at lower levels as well.
Studies in laboratory animals indicate that exposures to high levels of perc can produce effects on the developing fetus that include altered growth, birth defects, and death. While there have been studies of people who are exposed to high levels of perc, the studies are limited and inconclusive. Scientists have not yet determined whether perc exposures can cause such adverse effects in pregnant women as increased incidence of miscarriage or reproductive effects, affect women's fertility, or affect children born to parents exposed to high levels of perc.
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