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What is Perchloroethylene?

Perchloroethylene, also referred to as Perc, PCE or tetrachloroethene is a manufactured chemical solvent used in most dry cleaners and for degreasing metals. It is a volatile organic compound (VOC) with a sweet ether-like odour that is quite unmistakeable. Often clothes cleaned in a traditional dry cleaners will have a slight chemical smell when you collect them, this comes from the Perchloroethylene. If you get your clothes cleaned in traditional dry cleaners, it is advisable to air them for a day or two before wearing them, just to allow the last of the solvent to evaporate.

Perchloroethylene was first synthesized by Michael Faraday in 1821 and was introduced as a commercial dry-cleaning solvent in the 1934, becoming the leading dry cleaning solvent by 1962.

Over the intervening years there have been many attempts by the dry cleaning industry to replace Perchloroethylene, due to the environmental and health issues associated with it, but until recently there were no viable alternatives.

With traditional laundry systems, delicate fabrics can be damaged or shrink, which is of little use to anyone, but these problems do not occur with chemical solvents such as Perc. With the advent of wet cleaning, that is no longer the case and for more than ten years there has been an environmentally friendly and healthy alternative, but like so many new developments it has been slow to catch on. Even Perchloroethylene took over 100 years from its development to become the most common dry cleaning solvent. Let’s hope it won’t take that long for wet cleaning to take over. The issues with health and the environment will be covered in future posts, but it is clear that there is little political will to ban the use of Perchloroethylene in the short term.

Over time as countries like America move to ban the use of Perchloroethylene, it is likely that there will be a rise in the number of cleaners offering wet cleaning instead.

Advantages of wet cleaning:

  • Better health and safety
  • When used with bio-degradable detergents and conditioners, there is no soil contamination and emissions of air pollutants are eliminated
  • Clothes smell fresher and cleaner, without the unpleasant solvent smell.
  • Most stains are removed more easily (for example: sugars, salts, drinks, body fluids, starch, and milk)
  • Similar cost to cleaning with PERC
  • There is no burden of strict health, safety, and environmental regulations.

How long it will be before Perchloroethylene is banned in all dry cleaning is not clear, but it is only a matter of time.