Ask Janet!

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On the next few Fridays (and perhaps beyond), Breast Cancer Fund Janet_Gray_120Science Advisor Janet Gray, Ph.D., of Vassar College, will lend her scientific expertise in environmental health to answering burning questions around the link between breast cancer and environmental exposures. Dr. Gray’s Tips for Breast Cancer Prevention were featured on The Daily Green during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. She is also the editor of the Breast Cancer Fund’s State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment.


Question from Emilie, California:
I know that dry cleaning has harmful chemicals and is known for being an insidious pollutant of the environment as it’s difficult to contain the solvents. My dry cleaner recently changed ownership and is promoting that they are “earth friendly” cleaners. However, I’ve heard that some of the new methods of dry cleaning are better at being contained (and thus less polluting) but are still using the same or similar solvents.  What guidance can you give those of us with wardrobes full of professional clothing that require dry cleaning to ensure we are not unknowingly being exposed to toxic dry cleaning solvents.


Dear Emilie,
Thank you for your question. Dry cleaning is both hazardous for the environment and human health because of the use of perchloroethylene (also called PCE or PERC) to prevent water from penetrating the fabric’s threads. PERC has been found to be a water contaminant linked to increased breast cancer rates. Breast cancer clusters in Cape Cod, Mass., and recently Camp Lejeune, N.C., have shown a strong connection between incidences of the disease and high levels of the chemical found in their water supplies.

There has been some concern that cleaners will claim that they’re “organic” but continue to use PERC because it’s an organic solvent or volatile organic compound (VOC). In my October tips, I suggest that the best way to avoid exposure is to examine the fabric to determine if it’s necessary to dry clean. Manufacturers often put “dry clean only” on the label to prevent liability, but gentle wet washing and air drying may be sufficient.  

Along the same lines, a developing alternative in professional dry cleaning is wet cleaning and liquid carbon dioxide cleaning that uses water as a solvent rather than PERC.

The most environmentally-friendly method remains the do-it-yourself option where you can control the amount of water and type of detergent that you use. You also avoid unnecessary plastic bags!

Have questions about breast cancer and environmental exposures? Ask Janet! askjanet@breastcancerfund.org.

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