The holiday season is here and for many parents that means tidying up and getting festive clothing ready. But as you prepare your elegant dress or suit for the occasion try to kick the habit and skip the dry cleaning.
Why? Most dry cleaners in Canada use toxic chemicals for dry cleaning. The most prominent of them is PERC (short for percholorethylene). Introduced in dry cleaning in the 1940s, the colourless liquid is an excellent solvent for stains, but the highly toxic chemical is also a carcinogen linked to respiratory problems like asthma.
The Trouble With Dry Cleaning
Dry cleaning is actually not dry: professionally cleaned clothes are soaked in a detergent or solvent like PERC. The trouble with PERC is that it evaporates and pollutes the air, putting the health of dry cleaning workers at risk. To make matters worse, a large of amount of the PERC that’s used ends up in the outdoor air, polluting the air in the vicinity of dry cleaning operations.
This is especially problematic when a dry cleaning operation shares a building or is adjacent to apartments and residences – or sensitive locations like daycares, schools, hospitals and nursing homes. With lungs and organs that are still developing, babies and children are more sensitive to chemical exposures like PERC than adults.
In Canada, information about a nationwide use of PERC is hard to come by, but on the municipal level, the City of Toronto tracks usage and pollution from PERC and other chemicals of concern. The City’s database shows that on average around 40 per cent of PERC usage ends up polluting Toronto’s air every year. That’s between 12 and 14 tonnes a year of a chemical that’s linked to cancer and asthma.
Unfortunately, most businesses that don’t use PERC usually rely on chemicals that are only slightly less toxic – a mix of hydrocarbons or petroleum-based solvents.
The good news is that there is a non-toxic and sustainable alternative available with wet cleaning. Most clothing items that say ‘dry clean only’ on the label can be wet cleaned. This new technology uses computer-controlled washers and biodegradable detergents. Studies show that wet cleaning cleans just as well as PERC, resulting in equal or higher customer satisfaction.
How Can You Make A Difference?
It is clear that we need government action to ban PERC and other toxic dry cleaning chemicals and transition to non-toxic, sustainable wet cleaning. A look south across the border shows that it’s possible. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is phasing out all co-located PERC dry cleaning facilities. California is going a step further by banning all PERC operations by 2023.
As we demand government action in Canada, here are few things you can do:
- Check out our handy pocket guide for an overview of different dry cleaning methods and their health and environmental risks.
- Ask your cleaner about wet cleaning or find a wet cleaner near you. Click here for a list of Toronto wet cleaners.
- Sign our petition for proper labeling of toxics in products and services, including window signs in dry cleaning businesses so that customers know what chemicals are being used.
- Items that have been dry-cleaned with PERC can cause unhealthy fumes at home, potentially impacting indoor air quality. If you can’t avoid PERC, try to air items out outside before storing them in your closet.
To learn more about dry cleaning alternatives, take a look at the latest Environmental Defence toxics report: “Removing the Stain: Getting cancer-causing chemicals out of your clothes”.
Written by Maggie MacDonald, Program Manager Toxics, Environmental Defence