Is Your Closet Making You Sick?

by Sarah Healthy LivingComments: 11

dry cleaningDry cleaning is big business in developed nations around the world.    According to Proctor and Gamble, the average woman spends about $1500 per year on dry cleaning.   Even more surprising, 65% of clothes that are dry cleaned are actually machine washable!

Most folks don’t give a second thought to how their clothes are dry cleaned or what chemicals are used. The overwhelming majority of dry cleaning businesses use perchloroethylene (PERC), a solvent and probable carcinogen.   Dry cleaners love PERC because it cleans delicate fabrics without shrinking or fading.

PERC lingers on clothes hours or even days after the customer has taken the dry cleaned clothes home. The practice of enclosing the dry cleaned garments in plastic further encourages retention of residual PERC in the clothing fibers.   Vapors are then released into the air of your home when you remove the plastic and put the clothes into your closet.

You can be breathing PERC vapors in your bedroom while you are sleeping and not even know it!

Short term symptoms of breathing PERC vapors include dizziness, fatigue, headache, and sweating.   Lack of coordination and unconsciousness are also possible.   Long term exposure to PERC vapors can cause kidney and liver damage and potentially cancer as well (source:  EPA website).

PERC has a very strong and fresh smelling scent.   You’ve probably gotten a whiff of it before when pulling the plastic off your dry cleaned clothes.   Once evaporated, PERC can’t be detected by smell, so don’t trust your nose that it is gone.

Reduce Your Exposure to PERC

The first and most obvious way to cut your exposure to PERC is to dry clean fewer clothes.   Given that 65% of the clothes dry cleaned by the average woman could, in fact, be machine washed provides ample room for immediate and significant reduction in exposure.

A second way to cut your exposure to PERC is to unwrap your dry cleaned clothes outside and let them hang in the fresh air or garage for a few hours before bringing them inside and hanging them in your closet.

Unwrapping them in the house is NOT a good idea, as vapors will be released and can linger for up to a week!

You will also want to be sure to check with the local health department on PERC levels in the air if you work or live in a building where a dry cleaner operates.   PERC has been known to seep into nearby apartments and offices and contaminate the air.

Why Not Eliminate Exposure Altogether?

In recent years, “green” dry cleaning services have popped up across the country.   In my metro area alone, there are at least 3 such businesses.

Eco friendly dry cleaners use liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) to clean garments and such a process leaves no chemical residue that can harm the customer.

Our family switched to a green dry cleaning service as soon as one opened in our area a few years ago and have been extremely happy with the results, not to mention the peace of mind knowing that no PERC vapors are floating around our home.

Green dry cleaning is a bit more expensive than a regular dry cleaner, but preserving one’s health in the long run is no doubt the more economical option considering skyrocketing medical costs!

As suggested by Joel Salatin, the grassbased farmer featured in the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, if you think switching to an eco friendly dry cleaner is expensive, “have you priced cancer lately?”

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

Image via WikiPedia

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