The Wellesley Townsman - January 11, 2021

Dry Cleaning Can Pose A Risk To Your Health by Sara Frost Azzam

This article is the second in a series providing information to Wellesley residents about environmental and health issues. In doing so, the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project continues its mission to educate the community and to encourage individuals to reduce and/or eliminate the use of local environmental toxins.

If you're like me, you get a number of your clothes dry-cleaned. Until recently, I did not realize how potentially dangerous most dry-cleaning can be. Dry-cleaning is accomplished using a solvent called perchloroethylene or "perc," for short. In 1995, "perc" was determined by the EPA to be carcinogenic. It is extremely toxic, and in addition to causing cancer, it may also cause reproductive system problems, central nervous system problems, and damage to the liver and to the kidneys. Surprisingly, it is still used routinely by dry-cleaning establishments today.

The perchloroethylene vapors from the dry-cleaning plants leach into the air, creating air-quality problems for the neighborhoods in which the dry-cleaning plants are located, as well as causing breathing hazards for the people who work in the dry cleaning plants. Of greater significance for consumers is that the "perc" remains on our clothes after they are returned, resulting in off-gassing after we hang our dry-cleaning in the closet at home. While a few companies may run your clothes through a process to remove most of the "perc", for many, this is not the established norm. Since the "perc" remains on clothes, it can, potentially, cause us to have serious health problems.

There are several alternatives to perchloroethylene. Cleaner by Nature, a dry-cleaner with locations in Framingham, Ashland, and Brookline, uses a product called Drylene-800, which has a low vapor pressure, allowing for almost no off-gassing and, in addition, is non-toxic. A similar product is liquid CO2 that is virtually non-polluting and non-toxic as well. CO2 is being used by a franchise called Hangers, located nationwide in Nebraska, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. However, neither of these establishments has a location in Wellesley.

So, what can we do locally? Obviously, if you can, buy clothes that do not need to be dry-cleaned. But for those fancy silks and woolens that can truly only be dry-cleaned, ask your dry cleaning establishment what their stand on "perc" is. Find out if they use an alternative. We had hoped to provide you with this information, but of the ten local dry cleaners we attempted to survey; only three returned our requests for information. Of those three, two have an alternative to "perc." One is Jaylin Cleaners, on Washington Street, which, in response to consumer requests, has introduced a new wet-cleaning system called "the Aqua Clean System." The Aqua Clean system is a non-solvent based technology that uses biodegradable cleaning agents that create no hazardous waste. Sarni Cleaners, also located on Washington Street, uses a new Miele wet cleaning system on a limited basis. You must request these alternatives when leaving your dry-cleaning at either of these two establishments.

Recent studies, primarily in Newton, have debated the question of why cancer rates are rising amongst higher income groups. The WCPP was founded to study reasons why the town of Wellesley is experiencing elevated cancer rates. No one knows why people in some higher socio-economic areas have these elevated rates; however, we do know that money and education certainly do not cause cancer. Examining the lifestyles of people from higher socio-economic areas might provide some clues. Certainly people with higher income levels are more likely to use dry-cleaning services for their business suits and evening wear. Although we have no definite answers, we all have choices, so we urge you to consider all options.

I'll close this article by telling you about a wonderful man named Hank who owned and managed the "Mom and Pop" dry-cleaning shop where I used to get my clothes dry-cleaned. Hank was always a pleasure to visit, often offering bagels and tea to me and lollipops to my kids. This is the first anniversary of Hank's death. He died shortly after the holidays last year after two consecutive battles with cancer: the first with prostate cancer, and the second with liver cancer. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, perhaps not. But why take risks with our health when alternatives are available?

Please join the Wellesley Cancer Prevention Project and the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition for our upcoming Forum on Wednesday, February 7, 2001 at 7:30p.m. at the Wellesley Community Center. Further information will follow in the Townsman or call 237-6465.