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Dry cleaning and alternatives

Despite its name, dry cleaning is not actually dry. Liquid chemicals, called solvents, are used in the process. In the vast majority of dry cleaners, clothes are washed in a liquid solution that is mostly perchloroethylene (perc)or some other solvent, with very little water if any. This is why it is called "drycleaning" is used to describe the process.The health and environmental concerns arise when the solvents, such as perc, are toxic.

These are the five leading methods to professionally clean garments:

Carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide is a new environmentally friendly dry cleaning process that is highly effective in removing stains. Carbon dioxide cleaning is also far less harmful to human health than perchloroethylene, the solvent used by about 80 percent of dry cleaners. There are new cleaning facilities around the country using carbon dioxide. The process works by taking the gas form of carbon dioxide and pressurizing it into a clear liquid. Then, soap and clothing are added to the pressurized liquid as in a traditional dry cleaning machine.

Professional wet cleaning: Wet cleaning uses special equipment that gently washed and dries fabrics. Wet cleaners use pressing and tensioning equipment to prevent shrinkage and maintain garment shape. Wet cleaning can be used on most garments labeled "dry clean only."

Perchloroethylene: Used by more than 80 percent of cleaners, perchloroethylene has been shown to cause cancer as well as kidney and liver damage in animal studies. Other symptoms of short term exposure include: dizziness, headaches and unconsciousness.

It is classified as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

Petroleum-based solvents: The reason perchloroethylene became so popular is its low flammability. Other petroleum based dry cleaning solvents including Stoddard, DF-2000 are less flammable than the older dry cleaning chemicals but still present a fire hazard. Additionally, they emit volatile organic chemicals that contribute to air pollution.

Silicone-based solvents: Siloxane D5 is a Dow Chemical brand solvent known as GreenEarth. It is a silicone-based chemical that has long been used in the cosmetics industry. GreenEarth says its product is completely safe and biodegradable. They state that Siloxane D5 degrades into sand, water and carbon dioxide. However, a 2003 study showed an increase in uterine tumors among female rats that were exposed to very high levels of inhaled siloxane.