Dry cleaning has been around for many decades. Dry cleaning involves cleaning clothes with an organic solvent rather than with water. Certain clothing fabrics can only be washed by dry cleaning. People don’t usually think about what kind of chemicals are being used in the process of dry cleaning. You just walk into a store, hand over your clothes, and come back a few hours later to pick them up. You don’t think about the dangers certain chemicals can have. People that work in a dry cleaning business are faced with hazards every day. Chemical fires are a risk, as well as chemical spills that can get on the skin, in the eyes, or inhaled. Here, we’ll discuss the chemicals used in dry cleaning and their dangers.
Perchloroethylene, otherwise known as perc, is a dormant chemical solvent that is used in dry cleaning. It’s possible to experience certain symptoms after being exposed to high levels of perc, even for a brief period. Symptoms that perc exposure can cause include headache, fatigue, confusion, dizziness, nausea, and irritation of the eyes, mucus membranes, and lungs. Longer exposure to perc can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, and mouth. It can also cause damage to the liver and might even cause respiratory failure.
Another solvent that is used in dry cleaning is carbon tetrachloride. This solvent can cause health issues if exposed to it for a long time. Damage to the liver, central nervous system, and kidneys can occur if this substance is ingested by accident, if it gets onto the skin, or is breathed in.
Trichloroethylene is yet another solvent that has been used in the dry cleaning process. Exposure to trichloroethylene for short periods of time can irritate the throat, nose, and nervous system, as well as depression, headache, dizziness, and loss of coordination. Exposure to trichloroethylene for longer periods can cause reduced eyesight, numbness, facial pain, irregular heartbeat, and even death.
Clothing is often pre-cleaned with certain agents. Alkaline spotting agents such as ammonia, sodium hydroxide, and potassium hydroxide are used to clean off any water soluble stains from clothes. Being exposed to ammonia for a considerable amount of time can lead to throat and nose irritation. When exposed to wet skin, airborne ammonia gas is mildly irritating. When liquefied ammonia gas comes into direct contact with the skin, it can cause corrosive burns, or frostbite.
Sodium hydroxide exposure can have detrimental effects to a person as well. Along with irritation of the throat, eyes, and skin membranes, it can also cause labored breathing, abdominal pain, skin burns, shortness of breath, and swelling of the larynx that can get so bad it could lead to suffocation.
Exposure to potassium hydroxide can be pretty bad as well. Symptoms of prolonged exposure can include severe abdominal pain, severe mouth pain, severe throat pain, a rapid drop of blood pressure, vision loss, diarrhea, collapse, and swelling up of the throat that can hinder breathing.
As a consumer at a dry cleaning facility, you may be exposed to very low levels of these chemicals. Not very much to cause you any concern. However, if you or someone you care about works in the dry cleaning business, you can be a little more concerned. Now that you know about the chemicals used in dry cleaning and their dangers, you can make the decision whether to continue using these services or hand wash your clothing items. Any clothing that says “dry clean only” can usually be hand washed with no problem. It may be worth it to use dry cleaning to save on time, but on the other hand, being exposed to these chemicals, even for a little bit, can have serious consequences.