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Dangers of Perc Solvent

Most people don’t stop to think, what is dry cleaning and is it safe?

What is perc?

Many dry cleaning customers don’t think to ask, “What solvent is used in dry cleaning?” However, the most commonly used of the dry cleaning chemicals could have harmful effects on the human body. The chemical tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene)—commonly called perc—is a central nervous system depressant. It can enter the body through inhaling, touching the skin or through contaminated drinking water. There are more 35,000 garment cleaners in the United States, and more than 85% of them use perc as their primary cleaning agent. So, what is perchlorethylene? It is a potentially harmful chemical.

What does the perc solvent do to people?

Bad stuff. Minimal exposure to perc can cause people to experience dizziness, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and skin and respiratory irritation. Prolonged exposure has been linked to neurological effects, liver and kidney damage, and cancer. These dangers are not only for people who work in the dry cleaning, but for consumers who bring home supposedly clean clothes that are actually contaminated with perc. We’re sure you’re asking yourselves, “What is perc even doing on a list of chemicals that are okay for dry cleaning use?”

How much perc solvent is too much?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that clothes dry cleaned with perc can elevate levels of the toxin throughout a home and especially in the room where the garments are stored. Breastfeeding mothers who are exposed to perc may transfer it to their infants via breast milk. Dry cleaners located in residential areas risk exposing neighboring businesses and residents to an increased cancer risk, as high as 140 to 190 in 1,000,000. The perc dry cleaning solvent could have potentially harmful effects on even the most casual dry cleaning customer.

Are they sure perc is bad?

Yep. California declared perc a toxic chemical in 1991, and its use will become illegal in that state in 2023. The EPA has classified the perc solvent as a hazardous air contaminant, and both the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified perc as “likely to be a human carcinogen.”

Because of these classifications, federal law requires dry cleaners to handle perc as a hazardous waste, and cleaners have to take special precautions against site contamination. In fact, many landlords refuse to have dry cleaning facilities in their buildings because of the danger to other tenants and resulting remediation. Perc is such an effective solvent that if it’s exposed to the ground, it will penetrate concrete and soil and not stop until it hits groundwater. In other words, they’re sure perc is not one of the safest dry cleaning chemicals.

What’s happens to all that spilled perc?

It’s all around us. A 2001 Greenpeace report found that 70% of all perc used for cleaning ends up in the environment. Studies have found perc in more than 50% of all Superfund sites, and a federal survey found perc in more than 26% of U.S. groundwater supplies, in concentrations reaching hundreds of times the acceptable limit established by the Safe Drinking Water Act.