Chemicals Used in Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaners use chemicals to clean clothes and other fabrics. These chemicals can seep into the ground if not stored or disposed of properly, and can move from the ground into the air of buildings through the foundation. When these chemicals are breathed in, they can be harmful to your health. Dry cleaning chemicals can remain in the environment for decades.

What You Need to Know About Dry Cleaning Chemicals
What are the health effects of dry cleaning chemicals?

Some dry cleaning chemicals can:

  • Increase a person’s risk of getting cancer

  • Affect the development of a baby if a woman is exposed to them while pregnant

  • Affect the immune system

  • Affect the central nervous system

What chemicals are used in dry cleaning?
  • Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)

  • Trichloroethylene (TCE)

  • Vinyl Chloride

  • Chloroethane

  • 1,1-Dichloroethene

  • Methylene Chloride

  • Trans-1,2-Dichloroethene

  • 1,1-Dichloroethane

  • Cis-1,2-Dichloroethene

  • Chloroform

  • Carbon Tetrachloride

Learn more about these chemicals

Why do dry cleaners use chemicals?

The dry cleaning industry began as early as 1855 as a way to remove dirt and stains from clothes with solvents that weren’t water-based. A solvent is a substance — like nail polish remover or paint thinner — that is used to remove another substance. In the dry cleaning industry, tetrachloroethylene (PCE) became the most commonly used solvent.

How do dry cleaning chemicals get into the environment?

In the past, chemicals used in dry cleaning weren’t regulated and PCE was commonly spilled and dumped into the environment (for example, waste dumped behind the building or into floor drains, leaked through pipes, or spilled out of dumpsters and air vents).

PCE doesn’t break down easily and it can stay in the soil, air pockets in the soil, groundwater and indoor air for a long time. PCE is also highly volatile, which means it can easily become a gas, and it can then contaminate the air of buildings as it travels through the foundation. 

The process of dry cleaning has improved a lot over the years, but the effects of PCE on the environment and human health are still a real concern, especially when dry cleaners are or were in the same building as apartments, offices or other businesses (for example, strip mall). The main concern today is when PCE is released into the air by dry cleaners.

How many dry cleaners are in Vermont?

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has found 420 possible current and former dry cleaner locations in Vermont. Most of them are located in developed areas of the state, like town centers and neighborhoods. View a map of current and former dry cleaners

Forty-six of these locations have reported dry cleaning chemical releases to DEC. DEC is managing these locations and many of them have contaminated groundwater, soil and indoor air. The other 374 former locations may also have similar contamination.

Can dry cleaning chemicals be removed from indoor air?

In most cases, a sub-slab depressurization system, similar to a radon mitigation system, can be installed to lower the levels of the chemicals in the air.

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