Slightly wrinkly clothes are good for fieldwork and Fridays, but most offices require a more put together look. Clean and neat may be the way to go, but there’s more than one way to get there, despite the ever present “dry clean only” tags.

What does it really mean to have your clothes “dry cleaned?” Dry cleaning is a process where clothes are washed in a chlorinated hydrocarbon (solvent), as opposed to detergent and water. The most commonly used dry cleaning solvent is perchloroethylene, or perc for short. Perc is a very powerful solvent that easily evaporates off the clothes so wrinkling is minimized.

Short-term exposure to perchloroethylene can cause dizziness and headaches, while long-term exposure can damage the liver and the kidneys. Perc is classified as a probable carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) and is also a hazardous air pollutant that can contribute to ground-level ozone.

The good news is that there are alternatives, and it is possible to get that “dry-clean look” without using hazardous chemicals.

Some laundries use “wet cleaning,” where water and biodegradable detergents clean the clothes. A special machine then dries them and stretches the wrinkles out at the same time.

There are also technologies for dry cleaning using alternatives such as silicone, petroleum solvents and recycled liquid carbon dioxide. These technologies show promise, but, like your mother said, a little soap and water may be all we really need.

We have a choice. Wet cleaning in particular is becoming more readily available, and some of the larger chains in southern Maine now offer this service. Check for a link to a list of companies that provide wet cleaning and other alternative garment cleaning technologies. Better yet, call and ask your laundry about the availability of wet cleaning.

Probably the best “pollution prevention” solution is to limit or eliminate garments that can’t be washed in water. When you do have clothes dry cleaned, let them air out for a few days in the garage or mud room till they “off-gas” any excess perc before bringing them into your living space. After all, the fewer hazardous chemicals that we use or are exposed to in our daily life, the better.

David McCaskill, is an environmental engineer with the Maine DEP’s Bureau of Remediation and Waste Management. In Our Back Yard is a weekly column of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. E-mail your environmental questions to [email protected] or send them to In Our Back Yard, Maine DEP, 17 State House Station, Augusta, Maine 04333.

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