As a graduate student of Public Health concentrating in Environmental Health, I find it extremely important to be aware of things in our environment that can potentially cause bodily harm and disease, in addition to finding ways to protect human health.
I am also on the path to obtaining my Registered Dietitian credential, and have consequently discovered that our bodies can receive an arsenal of health promoting weaponry from the food we eat and the compounds found within them. The combination of these two highly related disciplines has yielded two important conclusions:
- The health of our food supply is highly related to the health of our environment
- The food supply has become one of the biggest areas of concern regarding exposure to environmental pollutants.
This has added many layers to a question I frequently ask myself: “what can I do to protect my health?”
As a slightly vain 23-year-old female with less than stellar mealtime etiquette, I am forced to frequently ask myself one additional question: “how do I get this curry stain out of my dress?”
A decent chunk of the time, the answer is DRY CLEAN ONLY.
Unfortunately, while I have learned that this answer keeps my dresses and my jeans “deLaurafied,” it isn’t the best answer for both my own health and the health of the environment. This is a result of the dry-cleaning industry’s use of the chemical solvent Tetrachloroethylene, otherwise known as PERC.
Never heard of it? That’s okay. I hadn’t either, until I took my first environmental health course last year. Shortly after, I came to realize it’s nearly as ubiquitous in the environment as many other environmental pollutants that receive nearly as much media coverage as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (think BPA, PCBs, mercury). In addition, emerging research suggests that PERC, like the aforementioned contaminants, might cause an alarming amount of health effects that far exceed the number of children Brangelina have adopted, which is why I chose to give you a small bite on the potential health effects of Tetrachloroethylene and some steps you can take to protect your health.
(Note: I highly respect Brangelina for their humanitarian efforts and pro-adoption lifestyle).
The Facts on Tetrachloroethylene (PERC)
Perchloroethylene, PCE, PERC, Tetrachloroethene, Perclene, and Perchlor.
What is PERC?:
PERC is a man-made, volatile organic compound (a chlorinated ethylene, to be precise) with the chemical formula Cl2C = CCl2. It is lipophilic, meaning it is fat soluble.
What is PERC’s main use?:
PERC’s main use is as dry-cleaner fluid. It has been used as the predominant solvent for the industry since the 1930s.
Why is PERC used?
As mentioned, PERC is a solvent used by the dry cleaning industry as its main cleaning agent due to its inherent properties. It removes stains from clothes without causing damage to them (i.e your True Religion Jeans miraculously maintain the size they were intended to be and that brilliant indigo dye stays in place—but needless to say, miraculous to a fault) and is is reusable, thus making it economically efficient.
How does PERC Get into the Environment from dry-cleaning processes?
PERC is unleashed into the environment due to its volatile nature and ability to rapidly evaporate, thus making air the most common place it is present. PERC can also be released into the environment from both waste products and wastewater from dry-cleaning processes.
What are the Health Hazards associated with PERC?
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, health hazards associated with PERC are correlated to the level of PERC one is exposed to, either from acute or chronic exposure . The EPA as well as other federal, state, and local government health agencies have implemented regulations limiting PERC emissions from dry cleaning establishments as well establishing limits on how much PERC is allowed to exist in the air and water supply.
In addition, estimates have been made regarding how much PERC can be tolerated in the human body before causing adverse health effects. It is my personal belief, however, that if there is scientific evidence showing that environmental pollutants like PERC are found to cause damage to human health, it is hard to justify that any amount of that pollutant in the body can truly be deemed safe.
Few studies have been conducted in order to assess the health risks associated with chronic exposure to PERC at in populations outside those who work in the dry-cleaning industry. New research is emerging, however, that PERC is a potential concern for people who live near dry cleaning businesses.
Higher than average exposure to PERC might also be a concern for people who frequently dry-clean their clothing or work in areas near dry cleaning businesses. Despite the relatively few studies regarding PERC exposure in these populations, animal research and occupational studies have elucidated a wide range of health effects. I want to stress that the majority of research has been conducted at higher exposures to PERC than what the average individual would receive. But, because of its large presence in the environment and its potential concern, I think it’s important that people be made aware of PERC’s toxicity and thus take measures to protect their own health, such as limiting dry-cleaning usage and choosing safer cleaning alternatives.
In addition, just as many of us are taking a stand with demanding safer and healthier food alternatives for all Americans, it is also imperative that we think in terms of the bigger picture of how our surrounding environment affects our health, with toxic industrial chemicals such as PERC being a huge part of that picture. This includes pressing for harsher regulations as well as more money for research and the development of safe alternatives.
Health Effects Associated with CHRONIC PERC Exposure:
The US Department of Health and Human Services has stated that PERC is a probable carcinogen. Epidemiological, human, and animal studies have linked PERC exposure with certain types of cancers. These include:
- Liver cancer
- Kidney Cancer
- Cancer of the breasts and genitals
- Esophageal cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Other health effects include:
- Neurological damage (headaches, motor and cognitive impairment, loss of color vision)
- Liver and kidney damage
- Upper respiratory complications
In what ways can Humans be exposed to PERC from Dry-Cleaning Processes?
Air: PERC is in the air due to its volatile nature. Resultantly, inhalation is the most likely form of exposure. The amount one inhales is proportional to their proximity and time spent around sites that would emit it (i.e dry cleaning establishments, hazardous waste sites—please tell me you don’t like to hang around the second listed? Settled? Ok, good). Obviously, those who live or work near a dry-cleaning business are at greater risk for being exposed to the chemical. This is most likely to be a concern in urban settings, where dry-cleaning businesses are in the midst residential buildings, offices, retail shops, restaurants, and other types of food vendors.
Contaminated water: The EPA has currently established a Maximum Contaminant Level GOAL (MCLG) for Tetrachloroethylene of zero mg/L in public water supplies, but the current Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) is .005 mg/L.
Skin: As mentioned, some of the chemical can remain present on the clothing after it has been dry-cleaned. As a result, PERC can be absorbed into skin from clothing worn with residual PERC matter leftover on clothing.
Food: While food is not traditionally discussed as the main source for exposure to PERC and its associated health effects, I personally think it is an area that deserves further research and attention. While on a dessert outing in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village recently (it’s my new craze; like clubbing…only BETTER because dessert is involved), I noticed an alarming amount of dry cleaners on and around the block of my favorite “sweet spot” and in the midst of other restaurants.
As I mentioned earlier, PERC is fat soluble, meaning that its residues have the potential to accumulate in foods with a high fat content. Going further, it’s fat soluble nature gives it the ability to accumulate and remain present in the body’s fat tissue. In other words, eating a Big Mac might be even more harmful when its “PERC-y”.
So, really, making healthier food choices may help protect you from exposure to PERC from food (in addition to other environmental pollutants with similar chemical properties).
What about “organic” dry cleaning?
A recent New York Times article discussed “organic dry cleaning.” My conclusion on the matter based on the article? Basically, the term “organic” in reference to dry cleaning has no meaning, and the dry cleaning industry currently lacks stringent standards that would parallel the USDA’s criteria that classifies food as organic.
In the article, Alan Spielvogel, technical director of the Dry Cleaners’ Association rather poignantly states: “I could clean garments with nuclear waste and I could call myself organic.”
Steps you can take to limit your exposure to PERC & Protect Your Health:
The most obvious thing you can do to avoid PERC exposure is try to reduce your trips to the dry-cleaner or seek out businesses that offer safer alternatives, such as the “Wet Cleaning” method mentioned in the Times article.
If you get your clothes dry-cleaned, you can limit residual chemical matter getting into your home and body by hanging recently dry-cleaned clothes in the garage or outside before putting them in your closet or wearing them.
Some final thoughts to consider:
- As an offshoot of the green revolution, why not be the first of your friends to start a NEW fashion revolution and strut “The Stain”? Rockin’ an impossible to remove mustard stain gives an added element of flair to your favorite khaki pants and is the epitome of “Going Orgo” on your fashion identity.
- Go Retro: save your clothes AND the planet with The Bib. Looking at old pictures, bibs really highlighted my eyes while sitting in my high chair in the late ’80s; it’s about I give it a comeback. See what I mean?
If you would like more information on Tetrachloroethylene, please consult the following resources:
- Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ASTDR) ToxFAQs™ for Tetrachloroethylene
- Fact Sheet: urban hazardous air pollutants
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Health Hazard Summary on Tetrachloroethylene
- EPA Technical Factsheet on Tetrachloroethylene
- Association between Residential Proximity to PERC Dry Cleaning Establishments and Kidney Cancer in New York City
Laura Hunter is thrilled that Andy has given her the opportunity to do a guest post on Small Bites blog and hopes it stands up to its stellar content! Laura entered the blogosphere herself last year as a guest-blogger for Elite Nutrition DC . She is a 2009 graduate of Washington, DC’s American University.
She currently resides in upstate New York and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Public Health (with a focus on Environmental Health) in addition to pursuing her Registered Dietitian credential. She would like to focus her studies on food toxicology and safety. She is a passionate advocate for the National Eating Disorders Association and shared her story and insights on improving body image for the first time last year as a featured speaker for events in honor of 2010’s NEDA’s Awareness Week.
Laura loves spending time with her friends, family, flashcards, the occasional glass of red wine, and watching hockey games (Go Capitals!). She is an avid art, yoga, opera, shopping, fitness, food, history, travel, and sports enthusiast. She also wants you to know that in her acocmpanying profile photo, she is not wearing leather OR fur!
You can reach Laura via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org