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Dry Cleaning

What is it?

Dry cleaning removes soils and stains from clothing with an organic solvent, without using water. People typically choose to dry clean clothes made of certain fabrics that can shrink, distort, or lose color when washed in water.

See also: Perchloroethylene (PCE, PERC) Solvents Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Why is it a concern?

Some chemicals used to dry clean clothing may harm human health.

Who is at risk?

People may be exposed to harmful chemicals if they work at a dry cleaning facility, dry clean their clothes, or use a laundromat that contains dry cleaning machines. People with a disease of the heart, liver, kidneys, or lungs will be more susceptible to the health effects of these harmful chemicals. Levels of exposure for consumers are much lower than for those working at dry cleaning facilities.

What pollutants are of greatest concern?

Perchloroethylene (PERC) is a colorless, nonflammable liquid used in dry cleaning. It has a sweet, ether-like odor. PERC is a toxic, volatile organic compound and manufactured chemical. After fabrics are dry cleaned, a small amount of PERC is released into the air. 


Long-term exposure to PERC may damage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys. It can also cause respiratory failure, memory loss, confusion, and dry and cracked skin. For women who are pregnant, long-term exposure to PERC may damage a developing fetus. There is also evidence that long-term exposure may lead to certain types of cancer


Short-term exposure to high levels of PERC can affect the central nervous system and cause unconsciousness and, at high levels, death. Short-term exposure to low levels of PERC can cause dizziness, inebriation, sleepiness, and irritated eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and respiratory tract. Direct contact with PERC liquid or vapor can irritate and burn the skin, eyes, nose, and throat. 

Reduce your risk

  • Do you live or work in a building that has a dry cleaner?
  • Do you dry clean your clothes?
  • Ask the local health department to check the level of PERC in the air.
  • When first bringing home dry cleaned clothes, unwrap them outside, and air them outside or in a garage or carport.
  • If dry cleaned clothing has a strong smell, bring it back to the cleaners and ask them to re-clean it.
  • Hand wash or machine wash clothes whenever possible.
  • Change cleaning techniques. Instead of dry cleaning, use wet cleaning, liquid carbon dioxide cleaning, or silicone-based cleaning machines whenever possible.
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