1. Why is EPA interested in drycleaning?
Since 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Design for the Environment garment and Textile Care Program has been working in partnership with the drycleaning industry to reduce exposures to perchloroethylene, or "perc," the chemical solvent used by most drycleaners to clean garments and textile products. Approximately 85% of cleaners use perc as their primary solvent. The primary focus of these questions and answers are the potential health and environmental concerns associated with perc.
This document is one of a number of EPA publications about professional garment care. It is hoped that the information presented here will answer questions you may have about drycleaning and related issues.
Drycleaners usually treat spots by hand before placing garments in large machines.
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.
In 1995, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), convened a panel of internationally regarded experts which concluded that perc is "probably carcinogenic to humans," based on limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence in animals.
To further understand risks associated with the use of perc, the Agency will be conducting a comprehensive, in-depth health effects assessment of perc through the Agency's Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) process. IRIS is EPA's electronic on-line database of summary health risk assessment and regulatory information on specific chemicals, and was developed to provide consistent risk information for EPA decisions. The comprehensive health effects assessment will be peer reviewed, and the data and conclusions will be available in 1999 or 2000.
Professional cleaners remove perc from drycleaned clothes as part of the overall cleaning process. You cannot tell by odor alone whether all the perc has been removed from your clothes. If you think all of the solvent was not removed, or if your newly drycleaned clothes smell like solvent, ask your cleaner to re-process your order or take them to another cleaner for re-cleaning.
There are many factors that influence perc air levels in drycleaning shops and each shop is unique. Perc evaporates quickly and can enter the air of drycleaning shops in many ways:
New drycleaning equipment, control technology, and cleaning practices can significantly reduce or eliminate these exposures. For example, "dry-to-dry" machines, which clean and dry garments in a single unit and eliminate the need to transfer wet garments from a washer to a dryer, have replaced many transfer machines and lowered exposures as a result. However, recent reports indicate worker exposures can be high even with new emission control equipment if proper maintenance and operation practices are not followed.
High perc levels in residences would be of special concern for irritation and other health effects, including a potential for cancer for occupants who are at home a lot and might be exposed to perc for extended periods of time, such as the elderly, young children, or pregnant women. Scientists do not know if perc exposures cause developmental changes in children.
Most of the perc used by the drycleaning industry escapes into the outdoor air through open windows, vents, and air-conditioning systems. In older drycleaning systems, perc may still be vented directly to the outdoors as part of the drycleaning process. Fortunately, many drycleaners now use new machines that control or eliminate the amount of perc that escapes during the cleaning process.
Once outdoors, perc can remain in the atmosphere for several weeks, and although small amounts are always in the air, perc itself does not deplete the ozone layer of the atmosphere. After a few weeks, perc breaks down into other chemicals. Some of which are toxic, and some of which are suspected to deplete the ozone layer.
Perc is known to be toxic to plants. It can enter the ground in liquid form through spills, leaky pipes, leaky tanks, machine leaks, and from improperly handled waste. Significant amounts of perc have been found in the waste resulting from drycleaning, which is considered a hazardous waste by the EPA. Most of the solid waste materials, which are filters used during the drycleaning process as well as residual solvent and soils, are picked up by hazardous waste management companies for recycling and/or incineration.
At the end of the cleaning process, the cleaning fluid is separated from waste water by distillation. In the past, the waste water was often poured down floor drains. In newer equipment, the waste water is collected and evaporated, or removed by hazardous waste handlers and disposed of through EPA-approved methods.
Perc can seep through the ground and contaminate surface water, groundwater, and potentially drinking water. A small amount of perc can contaminate a large amount of water and people can be exposed by drinking or using the water. EPA has a limit on the amount of perc that is allowed to be in drinking water. Well water can be tested to be sure it is below the EPA standard.
Small amounts of perc in the water have been shown to be toxic to aquatic animals who can store the chemical in their fatty tissues.
Driven by concerns about perc and other drycleaning solvents, recent advances in both technology and garment care have resulted in a sophisticated machine-based process called "wetcleaning" which uses water as the solvent. Wetcleaning is done in specially-designed machines that have to be operated by garment care professionals. While professional cleaners have always employed some form of water-based cleaning methods, often by hand, these historic methods bear little resemblance to the new machine-based wetcleaning process.
Wetcleaning is not the same thing as home laundry and can only be done successfully by trained professional cleaners using the specialized machines and specially-formulated detergents and additives to gently wash and dry clothes. These machines are usually computerized, and like drycleaning machines, can be programmed to control many variables and allow cleaners to customize cleaning for different garments. Wetcleaned garments can require more work to press and specialized labor-saving equipment has been developed to press and finish wet- (or dry-) cleaned garments.
Wetcleaning is appealing from an environmental point of view because the cleaning process is done in a solution of water with a few percent of additives. As with any new technology, there are unanswered questions about the potential environmental impact of wetcleaning, in particular regarding water and energy use. Wetcleaning detergents and additives usually end up going down the drain, and the potential environmental effects of these new products are largely unknown. Certain chemicals traditionally used in detergents may pose concern for aquatic toxicity if they are also found in wetcleaning products.
For more information about wetcleaning and to get a partial list of cleaners nationwide that offer wetcleaning services, call the Pollution Prevention Information Clearinghouse (PPIC) at (202) 260-1023 and ask for EPA publication called Wetcleaning (EPA 744-K-96-002). The most current list of self-identified wetcleaners can be found at the following web site: http://www.greenpeaceusa.org/campaigns/toxics/wetlist.html.
Also available from PPIC is a curriculum for teaching drycleaners how to wetclean: Training Curriculum for Alternative Clothes Cleaning (EPA 744-R-97-004a). The manual also contains useful information on fabrics and fibers. Current news and information on wetcleaning can also be found at the following web site: http://www.cnt.org/wetcleaning.
EPA hopes that in the near future, professional cleaners will have a wide range of environmentally-preferable cleaning processes to choose from. There are a number of new processes at different stages of development, such as:
Increasing numbers of drycleaners use new work practices which can significantly reduce perc exposures even in older equipment. Regular cleaning, inspection, and maintenance of equipment (e.g., ensuring repairing leaking gaskets and cleaning clogged dampers) help reduce perc emissions. In addition, some drycleaners install vapor barriers and build room enclosures which help keep perc from entering neighboring spaces, and provide safety training for workers to reduce worker exposures to perc.
An increasing number of commercial cleaners are incorporating new "greener" cleaning methods, such as wetcleaning, into their facilities. Some cleaners are involved in testing some of the emerging technologies still in development.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates the cleaning guidance on garment care labels. FTC is proposing changes to allow the labeling of garments now labeled "dryclean only" for environmentally preferable cleaning technologies.
Perc exposures to workers in drycleaning shops are regulated by exposure limits set by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA is expected to propose a new lower limit in the near future.
Some state and local governments are taking action to control, phase out, or ban certain types of older perc machines, as well as where cleaners are located.
The DfE Program relies on EPA's expertise and leadership to share information and jointly research risk reduction and pollution prevention efforts. A major tool developed by the DfE Program is a Cleaner Technologies Substitutes Assessment (CTSA), which presents relative comparisons of traditional and substitute technologies on the basis of cost, performance and risk. This unique tool is intended to inform business decision-makers, and to encourage them to consider environmental issues along with the traditional parameters of cost and performance.
In addition to the substantial technical effort to produce a CTSA, all DfE projects have large education and outreach components aimed at developing and sharing information, and promoting more environmentally preferable technology choices.
The goal of the drycleaning CTSA, Cleaner Technologies Substitutes Assessment for Professional Fabricare Processes, is to provide a comparative assessment of clothes cleaning technologies available to professional cleaners so they can incorporate environmental concerns into their day-to-day and long term business decisions. It is a highly technical document designed for use by fabricare experts, professional cleaners, owners, environmental health and safety personnel, equipment manufacturers, and technically-informed business decision-makers.
In order to facilitate making the information in the CTSA available to a broader audience, the CTSA is also available in a summary form, Cleaner Technologies Substitutes Assessment for Professional Fabricare Processes: Summary. There is also a fact sheet, Fact Sheet on Cleaner Technology Substitutes Assessment for Professional Fabricare Processes, which describes the goals and purpose of the new CTSA.
In the near future, the DfE GTCP plans to use the fabricare CTSA as the basis of a variety of user-friendly information products designed specifically for small business cleaners.
Information packets about the DfE GTC Program, as well as copies of other DfE project publications, are available upon request from the US EPA Pollution Prevention Information Clearinghouse (PPIC) at: