Clearing the air on dirty laundries

I apologize in advance for using technical jargon, but have you sniffed any perchloroethylene today?

You have if you've had a suit, a blouse or other clothing dry cleaned, because perc, as it's known in the business, is the solvent used by nearly all of America's 27,000 dry cleaners.

Unfortunately, dry cleaning itself is not clean at all, since perc is highly-toxic, capable of causing central nervous system damage, reproductive disorders, miscarriages, kidney and brain damage and several kinds of cancer. With dry cleaners pumping out 250 million pounds of this stuff a year, perc has become one of the most prevalent air contaminants in our cities.

So, is being poisoned or wearing dirty clothes our only choice? No, thanks to all kinds of innovative folks who are devising non-toxic ways to keep our clothes and our air clean. Some of the most promising methods involve going "back to the future" with what's called "wet cleaning" -- simply modernizing the old-fashioned processes of washing clothes. Another technique is to use liquid carbon dioxide -- the same benign, commonly available substance used to carbonate sodas. Industry tests are showing that plain old liquid CO2 gets clothes cleaner than perc, does less damage to the fabric, dries the clothes quickly without needing high-energy heaters to do the job, can be recycled to clean load after load, and puts zero toxic contaminants in our air.

Not only do these alternatives to perc make sense, but they also will make dollars and cents for the local businesses that clean our clothes. The operating costs of the liquid carbon-dioxide process are less than those of conventional chemical cleaning, and the cleaners can do two to three carbon-dioxide loads in the same time it takes chemical operators to dry-clean one.

This is just one more example of how concern for the environment is good business.