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THE DEBATE OVER DRY CLEANING

Question:Why would anyone want to change the successful method of dry cleaning?Answer:For your health.

There has been a quiet, steady evolution going on in the dry cleaning industry. For the past few years strategists warned business owners that regulations would tighten, costs would rise with liabilities, and thatthe public would demand chemical disclosure of their waste. Trade associations insisted that betterequipment, agents and methods had to be developed.

Fortunately, superior cleaning technologies are continuously constructed for clothes today. New industrialwashing machines are computerized and have features like controlled agitation. High-tech dryers canprecisely measure and control humidity levels to prevent shrinkage. Energy saving features are common. Pretty neat examples of innovative equipment.

But how about the cleaning solvent? Research proves that the best alternative to chemicals is water. Today’scleaners are still typically using perchloroethylene, alias perc. But it is a pollutant. Water machines cost lessthan perc machines and require no hazardous waste removal. Biodegradable soap is recommended. Thewater method is called wet cleaning.

Greenpeace is an amicable mentor for professional cleaning trade associations. Their goal is to phase_outperc production and perc use, but in a manner that allows dry cleaners to survive the transformation. Naturally,they focus on the positive aspects of the transition. For example, clothes come out softer and smell nicer.More importantly, wet cleaning eliminates potential health hazards in the work environment. This is anopportunity for cleaners to convert from a polluting industry to a sustainable one.

Of course there is company resistance. Some contend that there is little, if any, health risk associated with theproper use of perc. But most industry leaders acknowledge that health and environmental concerns are valid,not to mention other potential liabilities associated with perc. Thanks to their reality check, there is acooperative, rapid change taking place to modern equipment and wet cleaning.

So the difference between dry cleaning and wet cleaning is clear. Dry cleaning is professional fabric care inwhich clothes are washed in a toxic chemical. Wet cleaning is professional fabric care using water andnon-toxic soaps. That's modern technology with good ‘ole soap and water.

Business owners say they become interested in better equipment for a lot of reasons. Then once positive results are apparent from their investment, wet cleaning consideration typically emerges. They learn that wetcleaning can be successful for virtually all garments that are dry cleanable, even leather and suede. Trainingis available from the machine manufacturer, trade associations or organizations such as the Center forNeighborhood Technology (CNT) in Chicago.

Proponents of professional wet cleaning are working with the garment industry and the Federal TradeCommission in an effort to improve textiles and care labeling policy. The purpose is to deter the use of toxicchemicals and encourage the shift to safer alternative methods. Cleaners around the country are offering wetcleaning on a trial basis as a supplement to perc dry cleaning. Others take advantage as a niche market and boast about their total wet cleaning alternative.

Here’s the facts. Most of the 200 million pounds of perc used annually by 35,000 cleaners across the U.S.and Canada eventually enters the air and can contaminate the workplace and nearby dwellings. Some percstays in the cleaned clothing and some can (in lesser amounts) contaminate homes. Significant amounts ofperc have entered ground water aquifers, creating major Superfund liabilities. In California, 10 percent ofdrinking water wells are contaminated with perc. Perc waste that does not directly escape into the environment is sent to hazardous waste incinerators and cement kilns where perc combustion generates dioxins and other toxic pollutants.

Perc is known to attack the central nervous system and can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness andmemory problems. Perc has been associated with numerous reproductive problems, including fertilityproblems in men and menstrual disorders in women. Among female dry cleaning workers, studies haveshown a risk of miscarriage that is three to four times above normal. Perc is also known to contaminatemother's milk. The prestigious International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) classifies perc as a"probable human carcinogen" and other regulatory bodies are following suit. Perc is already known to causecancer in animals. Several studies have indicated that perc exposure in humans increases the risk ofesophagus, lung, kidney and liver cancers. Water contaminated with perc has also been significantly linked to leukemia and cancers of the pancreas, bladder and cervix.

If your lifestyle is too busy to launder and press your own garments, professional assistance is essential.Thankfully, more than 200 (and growing) "wet cleaners" across the United States offer environmentallaundering systems.

Ask cleaning service owners in your community if they offer wet cleaning. As environmental awarenessgrows, more professional launderers become astute on better alternative methods. You help by asking fornon-toxic wet cleaning methods instead of perc.

You may also wish to participate in any environmental program offered, such as recycling bags or hangers. According to the National Waste Prevention Coalition, cleaners can save between $600 and $16,000 peryear with their hanger recycling programs. An inventive Chicago cleaner offers a reusable garment bag that converts into a laundry bag.

We all want to look good. Clean clothes is a big part of that. May your pride shine with the clothes you wearand how you wear them.

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