Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dry Cleaning...Who knew?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Country Girl at Heart is hosting a book club in which we are all reading "Adventures in Thrift". The book, which was written in the early 1900's, is available online. While some elements of the book are outdated, I've been surprised how similar our "adventures in thrift" in the early 2,000's are similar to the challenges faced and lessons learned by the characters of hundred years ago.

Though the book is as timely today as when it was written, there are a few little historical details that make one ponder. One such item is that the main character in the book talks about cleaning her daughter's white coat with gasoline!

What? You can clean a garment -- a white garment, no less -- with gasoline? You can do this yourself, at home?

You would actually put a child in this garment? What about fumes? What about the risks of catching fire?

Being curious -- OK, being a history nerd -- I decided to find out more about dry cleaning.

Guess what? Wikipedia confirms that dry cleaning in that era did involve lots of petroleum:

Dry cleaning uses non-water-based solvents to remove dirt and stains from clothes. The potential for using petroleum based solvents in this manner was first discovered in the mid-19th century by French dye-works owner Jean Baptiste Jolly, who noticed that his tablecloth became cleaner after his maid spilled kerosene on it, and from this observation developed a service to clean other people's clothes in this manner, which he termed "nettoyage à sec," or "dry cleaning" in English.[1]

Early dry cleaners used petroleum-based solvents, such as gasoline and kerosene. Concerns over flammability led William Joseph Stoddard, a dry cleaner from Atlanta, to develop Stoddard solvent as a slightly less flammable alternative to gasoline-based solvents. The use of highly flammable petroleum solvents led to many fires and explosions, which resulted in heavy regulation of dry cleaners.

Aren't we glad things have come a long way since then? Well, today's dry cleaning chemicals are safer -- with regard to flammability, that is. However, modern dry cleaning chemicals have come under scrutiny because of health concerns.

Until recently, most dry cleaners used trichloroethane and/or perchloroethelyene (PERC). According to Dr. Roizen and Dr. Oz, (Those M.D.'s that Oprah made famous) these chemicals have been connected with damage to the kidneys and nervous system, as well as to cancer. This is true not only for those who work around these chemicals all day, but for people who wear dry cleaning, as well.

According to Wikipedia, there are also environmental concerns for PERC. For that reason, California has outlawed this chemical and all cleaners in that state are working towards a mandated deadline by which they must convert to another cleaning solvent.

So, in light of these concerns, what should you to protect your family and the environment? It's difficult, if not impossible, to avoid exposure to every possible toxin, and it's probably not wise to loose too much sleep over every chemical-related warning that comes along. However, since there are simple steps you can take to reduce your exposure to dry cleaning chemicals, it only makes sense to put them into practice. Below, I've listed three suggestions from Drs. Roizen and Oz, along with some extra tips to help you carry them out:

1) Ask your cleaner what chemicals are used on your clothes. Look for cleaners who have switched over to other solvents than PERC and trichloroethane.

2) Limit dry cleaning to only those things that truly do need dry cleaning.

For one thing, don't be in a rush to take items to the cleaners. This is especially true of clothing, which needs cleaning more often than household fabric items. Too much dry cleaning is hard on garments, anyway. Learn how to air out wearables in order to keep them fresh. For example, hang a dry-clean-only dress on a padded hanger, with plenty of room around the garment for it to breathe, and stuff the sleeves and underarms with tissue or non-acid paper. Also, learn how to spot clean garments to cut down visits to the cleaners. Be careful even with that, though, as some spot-cleaners have chemicals in them that are equally as concerning as dry-cleaning.

It goes without saying that stretching out the intervals between dry cleanings is not only better for your health and for the health of the garment, but it's good for your budget, as well.

Also, note that some items that have labels that say "dry clean only" can be cleaned at home, using water and a delicate soap. You may not want to risk this unless you can either stand to toss the garment if something goes wrong or you are sure of your results. Before you attempt the process, be know what you are doing. For example, in the case of washing a sweater, review how to block it so that it will retain its shape and size.

Similarly, look for the cleaning directions before you buy fabric, clothing, or a household fabric item. If it says dry clean only ask yourself, "Do I really want to bring this home?" In the case of a well-made item of fine fabric, the answer might be "yes". But, for something of synthetic fabric and indifferent construction, you'd do well to walk on by -- even if it is in your favorite color and it's on sale for one-fifth of the original asking price. When evaluating a dry-clean only item, consider both the costs of dry-cleaning and the time spent doing step #3 as part of the total expense.

3) When you do have something dry-cleaned, remember this: The plastic that protects the item until you get it home also traps particles from the dry cleaning chemicals. Take off the wrap and hang dry-cleaned items outside, in a covered place, to let them air for a bit before putting them away. This is especially important for items that will be placed in a closed closet or drawer, where particles from dry cleaning can accumulate.

While you're at it, reconsider using mothballs if you have them in your home. There is some thought that they are carcinogenic. Cedar chips are one alternative you can try.



Mrs. Fussy Fussypants said...

Excellant Post! I was so thrilled when I found a 'non-toxic' drycleaner near my home.

So many people just do not know the dangers of dry-clening!

Great job getting the word out.

Love & Blessings,

ps- Thank you for the Linky Love! ;)

Meredith said...

Perhaps we should all be so horrified that we are cleaning clothes in a close cousin to gasoline.

Can you imagine the fire hazards back in those days, too? A full skirt, doused in gasoline, brushing up to hot stoves, fireplaces and candles? Ack!

Country Girl At Heart said...

Elizabeth thank you for taking the time to clear up this mystery. I was shocked when I read in "Adventures in Thrift" that Mrs. Larry was going to clean her daughters white coat with gasoline. Times have certainly changed. I will posting about my readings from chapter 8 and I will include a link to this post for those who are interested in getting some clarification on Mrs. Larry's Laundry methods.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Mrs. Fussypants, Meredith, and Country Girl at Heart:

Thanks for your comments!

Alli, you're ahead of us all!

Meredith, I had a vague idea that dry cleaning involved some kind of petroleum derivative. But, I don't think it really sunk in until I read about the woman cleaning her child's coat. I agree with you. It must have been doubly dangerous back then, when children were more exposed to open flames.

Country Girl at Heart, I am enjoying Adventures in Thrift so much. It's given me a new perspective on how I look at my household budget. As for the gasoline cleaning method, now we know!

Country Girl At Heart said...

I have given you an award. When you get a chance stop on by.

Bethany said...

Thank you so much for this very interesting post!

I was very curious about this as well, and googled cleaning with gasoline, but I must not have googled very well, because I didn't find any of this!

One thing about dry clean only clothing: when I buy clothes at thrift stores, I always wash them in the washer first thing, even if they say dry clean only. I figure I'm only out a dollar or so (I only buy on dollar days, lol) if it does get ruined, and if it doesn't then I have something I know can be washed in the machine. This doesn't always work though, so I'd only try it on things that you wouldn't feel a big loss of if they got ruined.

Also, great advice about taking the plastic off your clothes when you bring them home. I never thought about how that's so much better for us, but I've heard many times that it's better for the clothes, since keeping the plastic on can cause yellowing and things like that.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Bethany:

I think I found stuff about the petroleum products and dry cleaning because I looked up history of dry cleaning, as well as cleaning with gasoline.

I hadn't thought about the plastic causing yellowing, not that I do leave things in the plastic for very long. But, that's a good point. So, it's good to know that it helps us and our clothes to take the plastic off and air them out.