In cities around the country, organic dry cleaners are sprouting up faster than frozen yogurt shops and twitter blogs.

The impetus for this new trend in dry cleaning comes from recent reports linking chemicals used in traditional dry cleaning methods to cancer, liver and nervous system damage, infertility, and hormonal disruption.

The main culprit, used in about 75 percent of all dry cleaning, is perchloroethylene. Commonly referred to as perc, this synthetic chemical contains chlorine bound to a carbon-based, or organic, compound. Because any compound based on carbon is called organic in chemistry lingo, using any of the thousands of manufactured and unhealthy chemicals can be called an organic process.

Sifting through the dry cleaning hype

The term organic is often used as a marketing ruse to draw in customers looking for a healthier alternative to harsh chemicals. But since there is no legal definition of organic when it comes to dry cleaners, consumers need to find out exactly what process the cleaners are referring to as organic.

Some of the alternative chemicals marketed for dry cleaning include DF-2000 made by Exxon-Mobil, which seems to cause fewer adverse health effects than perc, but is still considered a neurotoxin by the EPA. Chevron-Phillips makes a similar product, EcoSolv, containing a mixture of chemicals called isoparaffins. Scant information is available about this mix, and prolonged exposure to EcoSolv caused kidney damage to test rats.

Another alternative treatment under debate is silicon-based siloxane D5. This product is an odorless, colorless liquid marketed under various names, including GreenEarth, and used in many personal care products. Lab studies of siloxane D5 done on rats showed an increase in uterine tumors in females. But the company states that due to biological differences, the same results would not occur in humans. Canada has proposed banning siloxane D5 for its toxicity and is currently reviewing all the data with a goal of reporting findings at the end of 2011.

The EPA suggests that if clothing from the dry cleaners has a strong smell, bring it back and ask them to re-clean the garment. If the smell persists, find a new dry cleaner. The process involved in using perc includes a finishing act of drying out and reusing the perc. Therefore, if the process is done correctly, there should not be a strong odor lingering on the garment. Another way to potentially reduce the hazard of chemicals is to allow the clothing to air out in an open area — such as carport or backyard — for a few hours.

Maintaining your wardrobe without chemicals

An even better alternative to sniffing and retreating your clothing is finding a truly health-conscious dry cleaner. The two most effective natural processes used today are wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide cleaning. Wet cleaning uses controlled amounts of water and nontoxic, biodegradable detergents. CO2 cleaning involves high pressure, which converts gas to liquid to clean the clothing, and then a release of pressure which converts it back to a gas to dry the clothing.

Unfortunately, the list of wet cleaners and carbon dioxide cleaners is quite limited. If you don’t live near one of these locations or want to treat your dry clean only garments at home, there are a few at-home options for dry cleaning.

Packaged dry-cleaning kits, such as Dryel, FreshCare and Woolite, can save you money while keeping perc out of your home. Consumers say these products don’t do as well as dry cleaners for getting out deep stains, but they’re great for last-minute freshening up and removing odors from garments.

Last but not least is using good ol’ elbow grease to wash your un-washables. Polyester and nylon are safer to treat at home than silks and wools. Velvet, suede, fur and leather should only be cleaned by professionals.

Start by pre-treating stains using this handy guide to stain removal. Then fill a sink or large basin with cool water and a gentle cleanser, such as face soap, and gently rub at stains with your fingertips. Spill out soapy water, refill with fresh cool water, and agitate the garment to get out the last bits of residue. Lay the garment out on a towel, gently roll up to absorb water, and repeat on dry areas of the towel several times. Lay the garment flat on a fresh, dry towel and remember to shape it before it dries.

Know more about avoiding the dangers of dry cleaning? Leave us a note in the comments below.

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