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1 year ago
“Should I Worry About...Dry Cleaning?”

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There’s nothing like putting on a crisp blouse or freshly laundered dress straight from the cleaners, but could slipping on dry-cleaned clothes be dangerous? A new study from the Danish Cancer Society Research Center suggests that exposure to Tricholoroethylene (TCE), a chemical used in dry cleaning since the 1950s, may increase your chances of getting cancer.

While TCE is known to be carcinogenic to animals, a U.S. Department of Human and Health Services Report on Carcinogens released in 2011 speculated that it may also cause cancer in humans—yet the chemical is still used in dry cleaning, white out, paint thinners, adhesives, and other cleaning products. Even more worrisome, trace levels of TCE have been detected in drinking water.

To determine TCE’s effect on humans, researchers at the Danish Cancer Society Research Center followed more than 40,000 people from 1947 to 1989 and monitored their TCE levels and any incidences of cancer. During that time, researchers noticed that men who’d been exposed to TCE were 8 percent more likely to get cancer and—disturbingly—women were 23 percent more likely to get the disease.

So should you toss your dry clean-only duds? Not just yet. Study subjects were exposed to much higher levels of TCE than people typically are today. “Nowadays, [TCE] is normally only used for spot removal in dry cleaning shops,” says lead study author Johnni Hansen, PhD. In fact, the dry-cleaning industry is no longer a major source of TCE exposure, says Hansen. Since the chemical is used in much larger quantities as a degreaser in the metal industry, people who work in that field should be much more concerned about their exposure levels, says Hansen.

“Exposure levels have decreased perhaps five- to 10-fold during the last 40 years,” he says.

While it’s hard to say what amounts of exposure are “safe,” higher levels clearly pose a higher risk, says Hanson. So people who work at a job that forces them to be exposed to TCE every day (like metal workers) should be much more concerned about their cancer risk being impacted than someone who dry cleans some of their clothing regularly.

And as for the TCE you may be exposed to when drinking water? “It’s in extremely low concentrations,” says Hansen, so it’s unlikely to affect your cancer risk. (The EPA actually regulates the amount of TCE allowed in drinking water to ensure it remains at or below safe levels.)

The Verdict: Don’t worry about dropping your duds off at the cleaners. Only small amounts of TCE are used in dry cleaning, and many cleaners don’t use it at all anymore. If you really want to avoid the chemical as much as possible, there’s an easy fix: Just ask your dry cleaner if they use TCE or find a chemical-free green dry cleaner in your area at nodryclean.com.

photo: Stockbyte/Thinkstock

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