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Dressed to Kill 

How to stop bringing home carcinogens from the cleaners

For those who use dry-cleaners, "dressing to kill" takes on a whole new meaning. Ever notice that stink in the car and the house when you bring home dry-cleaned clothing? That's because the air has been tainted with a carcinogenic chemical. You expose your skin to the stuff when you put those clothes on.

Dry-cleaners use perchloroethylene, which goes by the nickname PERC, a cleaning agent. PERC sounds innocuous, but get enough of it and, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council website, it can "cause mood and behavioral changes, impairment of coordination, dizziness, headache, and fatigue. Chronic exposure to lower levels of the chemical can lead to cognitive and motor functioning impairment, headaches, vision impairment, and in more isolated cases, cardiac arrhythmia, liver damage, and kidney effects. PERC has also been demonstrated to have reproductive or developmental effects and may cause several types of cancer."

PERC has been found in soil and groundwater, and employees working with it to clean clothes are at increased risk of esophagus and bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, spontaneous abortion, menstrual and sperm disorders, and reduced fertility.

Don't believe all the marketing claims by cleaners who claim to be environmentally friendly. One Bay Area dry-cleaners claims that it uses "only products safe for our clients and our planet." When I called I was told, "No, we don't use any chemicals" and "Yes, we dry-clean." All dry-cleaning is done with toxic chemical solvents, and the majority of dry-cleaning establishments use PERC. If a business confirms that it dry-cleans, it's important to ask what chemical solvents it uses, and whether or not it uses PERC. The state now forbids installing a new PERC machine, and those in operation must be retired after 15 years. By 2023, PERC machines will be illegal in California.

Meanwhile, alternatives to dry-cleaning include hand-washing in cold water, (recycled) carbon dioxide cleaning or wet cleaning, none of which uses toxic chemicals.

Pacific Heights Cleaners in Sausalito switched to wet-cleaning in August of 2007. "It has helped our business substantially," explains founder Karl Huie. "It is the smartest move I ever made." According to Huie, the transition changed the process of the work but did not increase the work itself. Huie says he feels better about the cleaner work environment, especially since three employees have recently become pregnant and his plant is now safe for them.

And business? It's great. "Customers keep searching us out, so we get new customers every week," says Huie. "On all levels, business is better."

To find wet-cleaners or carbon dioxide cleaners, see

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