Exploring Human Potential

Avoiding PERC (and your Dry Cleaner) – A Win, Win, Win.

Posted on | August 2, 2011 | No Comments

Mike Magee

Looking for a win, win, win? What about something that will save you money, protect our environment, and protect human health. Let’s talk dry cleaners.(1)

First, let me say, I can afford to go to a dry cleaner, although I don’t have as much need for them as I once did. But the bottom line is – the lady at the front desk is kind of nasty to me, my shirts don’t seem to come back clean, pants and jackets cost a fortune, and I’m not sure where the clothes go to be cleaned.

Down the road from us, in 2002, a dry cleaner in Naugatuck, CT was sent to jail for 18 months for dumping PERC from his establishment into a wooded area and polluting residential wells.(2)

PERC? That’s perchloroethylene. It’s been the mainstay of dry cleaning since the 1930’s, replacing turpentine, benzene, kerosene and gasoline. About 80% of dry cleaners still use it, but they’ll have to switch in 2020.(1) It seems perc is great at dissoving oil based stains, but it’s also carcinogenic. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health research identified a 25% greater risk of dying from cancer in dry cleaning workers compared to the general population.(3) And the Environmental Protection Agency found that about half of the national priority sites for toxic waste cleanup were contaminated with PERC.(4,5)

According to the latest census, there are 24,124 dry cleaning laundries in the U.S.(1) And while there seems to be one on every corner, industry satisfaction is remarkably low. In 2001 the Better Business Bureau received 4,451 complaints against the dry cleaning industry. Of 1000 businesses they track, that score allowed dry cleaners to make the top 25 list of worst offenders. (2)

But when we complained, did they respond? Well, no. Compared to a business wide satisfactory complaint settlement rate of 66%, dry cleaners resolve issues only 34% of the time, with cash settlements for damaged or lost items usually at .15 to .40 cents on the dollar.(2)

When I was little boy – as young as 7 –  my mother taught me how to iron. There were 12 kids in our family – 6 boys and 6 girls. My mother taught all of us to iron. I liked ironing – the skill of it, the empowerment, the sense of immediate satisfaction when a wrinkle disappeared.

When I met my future wife as a teenager, she was impressed – and somewhat surprised that a boy could iron. We got married and had four kids. When our oldest, Michael, was trying to win over his future wife, Susanna, he got a huge boost of support from his future mother-in-law when he volunteered to iron the bridesmaids’ dresses for Sue’s sister the day before her wedding.

Over the years, I got older and busier and more dependent on others – and I used dry cleaners for the next 30 or so years. But I have to say, I never really felt good about it.

So last year, I started washing my own shirts at home, and I’ve gone back to ironing. It keeps my hands busy and slows my pace a bit.

One  more thing – I’ve joined a growing number of Americans in avoiding purchasing any clothing that says “dry clean only”.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


1. Smith R. The New Dirt On Dry Cleaners. WSJ. July 28, 2011, D1.

2. Chan D. Ten Things Your Dry Cleaner Won’t Tell You. Smart Money. Feb. 11, 2003.

3. CDC. NIOSH Study of Dry Cleaning Workers. 1996.

4. EPA. Compliance Assistance For Dry Cleaners.

5. EPA. Frequently Asked Questions About Dry Cleaners.


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