Jun didn’t have to look far for the cause. Working ten- and twelve-hour days, seven days a week, he was constantly exposed to fumes from perchlorethylene.

Like most “dry cleaners,” the process Eureka used was dry only in the sense that no water was used. Instead, garments were laundered in “perc,” the solvent that gives dry-cleaned fabrics their signature sharply sweet chemical scent.

Workers exposed to perc are known to experience headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and dizziness and to develop skin and respiratory irritations. Long-term exposure has also been shown to increase the risk of liver and kidney damage and cancer.

Perc is harmful to the environment too. It’s classified as a hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency, and when it’s not disposed of properly it can contaminate soil and groundwater. The State Coalition for the Remediation of Drycleaners estimates that as much as 95 percent of existing dry cleaners have some level of contamination. In California, perc is being phased out, and the solvent will be banned by 2023.

Fortunately, the use of toxic chemicals isn’t the only way to get delicate fabrics clean. Jun read about an alternative called “wet cleaning” in a trade magazine and decided to make the switch, investing $100,000 in new equipment at Eureka’s three locations.

Wet cleaning machines launder clothes in water and biodegradable detergent. Unlike home machines, they are computer controlled, allowing time, temperature, and washing action to be precisely determined. After washing, clothes are very gently dried, reshaped with a tensioning device, and pressed.

Although wet cleaning has been around for decades, many dry cleaners don’t make the switch, says Jun, because of the cost and concern that delicate fabrics will shrink or fade in a water wash. But he says his experience has been just the opposite: “After cleaning the color is brighter and the white is whiter, so people like it.” They also like the fact that their clothes come back with no chemical smell.

Although wet cleaning takes more work, Jun says, he’s kept his prices comparable to conventional dry cleaning. “Ann Arbor is now my hometown, and my kids are here,” he says. “This is a better way to serve my town.” And, he says, “new [customers] are coming in just because of the wet cleaning.”

The Martinizing cleaners on Plymouth Rd. and Packard also stopped using perc in the past year; the W. Stadium location switched about five years ago. Instead of wet cleaning, they use a nontoxic liquid silicone solvent marketed under the name Green Earth.

Over at the south end of Main St., Iris Cleaners owner Myong Choi made a similar decision in 2002. When Choi took over Iris in 1997, she’d noticed the effects of perc on herself and her employees.

“When I touched perc, I knew it was harmful. The fumes were bad, and if it got on my skin it would sting and I’d get a rash.

“We tried not to touch it; we’d use gloves and masks, but still it was bad.”

Choi too made an investment in new equipment, about $50,000 in her case. But like Jun, she keeps her prices competitive with conventional dry cleaning. “Some of my customers appreciate the green aspect,” she explains, “but more of them care about price.”

Green Earth, she says, takes a little more work because it’s just not as effective at cleaning as perc. “Perc really cleans well,” she allows. “But it’s toxic. Silicone cleans the same fabrics, but there is no smell, and we don’t need to wear gloves and masks anymore.”

Perc can be used safely

To the Observer:

The Michigan Institute of Laundering & Drycleaning (MILD) is responding to your article published in the May 2016 issue (“Clean Clothes, Clear Conscience,” Inside Ann Arbor). This response is to share information on the drycleaning industry with consumers.

There are three common methods of cleaning fabrics in the drycleaning industry: machinery using a solvent, machinery using liquid carbon dioxide, and wet cleaning. Each method has different strengths, costs, and effectiveness. MILD does not promote one method over another but does want to emphasize that drycleaners in Michigan are following safe methods for cleaning fabrics and we would like to point out some misrepresentations in the article.

The article mentioned a commonly used solvent called perchloroethylene (perc) and spoke negatively about the use of perc in drycleaning machines. Perchloroethylene is still used by 87-93% of the cleaners in Michigan. To respond to some points raised about perc:

Drycleaning workers can use perc safely–2016 studies among professionally run drycleaners have shown this fact. According to an article by Nora Nealis, Executive Director of the National Cleaners Association, “When handled properly, PERC is extremely safe.” The same article states that studies of workers at drycleaners have found no increased risk of cancer, even after years of PERC exposure. The State of Michigan monitors each drycleaner in Michigan to measure and track their usage of perc and test their machines to verify they are operating at safe levels for air quality control. x2028

Consumers should feel safe when their clothing is cleaned in perc. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a report in 2012, concluding that drycleaning garments with perc does not pose a risk or concern to the health of drycleaning employees or consumers.

Readers with questions about drycleaning safety are welcome to contact me for more information.

Marcy Dwyer
Executive Director