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Student study on chemicals in dry-cleaning clothing


A debate on dry-cleaning arose after a high school sophomore – Alexa Dantzler – wondered whether chemicals remain in dry-cleaned clothing. She wanted to learn more about dry-cleaning and the chemicals used for dry-cleaning. Dry-cleaning is a common practice in everyday life but there was little information about its effect on leaving toxic residue on clothes. Alexa’s goal was to have the support from an expert or chemistry professors and to do some experiments with them to assess the risks.

Paul Roepe, then-chairman of Georgetown University’s chemistry department, agreed to help her in this study. Little by little, the university lab began to show interest in this study too; and resulted in a paper published in a peer-reviewed environmental journal about the amount of a toxic chemical that lingers in clothing after it is dry-cleaned.

Alexa Dantzler started the experiment. She sewed squares of different fabrics – wool, cotton, polyester, silk – into jackets and took them to be cleaned several times. She preserved the samples in a freezer and did chemical analysis with graduate students of Georgetown University. The experiment upheld Alexa’s doubts: a dangerous solvent, perchloroethylene (also known as PCE or perc), stayed in the fabrics at a high level. The more the clothing was cleaned, the higher the level was, and it was particularly true with wool. The concern with perc is that it is linked to cancer and neurological damage.

The research team then focused on perc to try find out how much this solvent is retained in dry-cleaned clothes and absorbed through the skin. Industry representatives state that perchloroethylene is used in 65-70 percent dry-cleaning facilities in the country. Experts still do not know the real consequences and risks for the consumers yet, in terms of health effect. They have to keep researching to reach an accurate result.

There are regulations and guidelines for atmospheric concentrations in the workplace – although there are not any standards for perc levels in dry-cleaning fabric. The experts are sure that the perc levels produced after dry-cleaning are even higher than the recommended limits.

The next step will be now an assessment of human exposure to wearing dry-cleaned clothes.

Industry representatives may not agree with the study because they find it either incomplete or imprecise, but the study raises many important questions about PCE and its consequences on human body. 

If you have any question about pce contamination, please call Brian Moran, P.E., LSP, at (508) 747 – 7900 x 189.


Information in this article taken from Sept 5, 2011 article by Lena H. Sun published in the Boston Globe.


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