It may not be easy to locate a "green" dry cleaner in your area, but I do think it is worth your time to try to find one. The main problem is a chemical called perchloroethylene (PERC), the solvent used as a cleaning agent by most traditional dry cleaners. PERC has been shown to cause cancer in animals. While there’s no conclusive evidence yet that it has potential health risks to humans, it is considered a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
PERC poses a far greater risk to workers at dry cleaning establishments than it does to the customers. Even short-term exposure can cause dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat. Long-term, it can lead to liver and kidney damage. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, dry cleaning workers exposed to large amounts of PERC can experience memory loss and confusion. Consumers have far less exposure, and you can reduce the little you do get by taking clothes out of plastic bags when you get them home and airing them in a well ventilated room.
Safer methods – collectively known as "green" dry cleaning – are becoming more available but are still the exception rather than the rule. Less toxic methods include the use of liquid carbon dioxide cleaners, silicone-based "GreenEarth" cleaning and a third method called "wet cleaning" that involves water, biodegradable soaps and specialized drying machines to prevent fabric damage. In 2003, Consumer Reports tested all three methods and found that the clothes cleaned with the carbon dioxide cleaners best retained their color and texture – the clothes actually looked better than those cleaned with PERC. An added advantage: this method is the least toxic and most energy efficient. You can try to locate cleaners using the carbon dioxide method at www.hangersdrycleaners.com/locations.html. I’ve used this company and found the service great.
If you can’t find a green dry cleaner in your area, you do have the option of hand-washing some garments labeled "dry clean only" (especially if they’re natural fabrics – 100% cotton, wool or silk). Use cold water, a mild detergent and then air dry.
Andrew Weil, M.D.