Hung Out to Dry

Hung Out to Dry
Hung Out to Dry


Buy clothes that do not require dry cleaning. Keep in mind that clothing marked “dry clean only” often can be hand washed in cold water and air dried with little consequence.

Use dry cleaning services that do not use perchloroethylene (PERC), or request “wet cleaning.” PERC has been linked to various cancers. One study, in fact, found an association between exposure to PERC through drinking water and a higher risk of breast cancer. Wet cleaning—a nontoxic, environmentally safe alternative to dry cleaning—has been growing in popularity since the mid-1990s, as have non-PERC dry cleaning alternatives, such as liquid carbon dioxide. For more information, download a brochure on wet cleaning from the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

If you must use traditional dry cleaning with PERC, open the plastic bag outdoors on a porch or in the garage, discard the plastic, and air your clothes out before hanging them in a closet or wearing them. Studies have shown that people breathe low levels of this chemical when they wear dry-cleaned clothing and spend time in indoor spaces in which dry-cleaned items are stored.

Between 1982 and 1992, the city of Newton, Massachusetts, had a breast cancer rate that was 11 percent higher than that of the state as a whole. The breast cancer rates were uneven within the city, ranging from 22 percent below to 55 percent above the state average. Silent Spring Institute scientists launched a study into the factors that may have contributed to those elevated breast cancer rates.

The researchers found that residents of Newton’s high-incidence areas typically had a higher income, more education, and other indicators of an elevated socioeconomic status. As income and education are not themselves causes of breast cancer, the researchers looked deeper into whether the well-known association between socioeconomic status and breast cancer risk may have been the result of environmental exposures.

One key finding of the study was that individual characteristics known to affect breast cancer risk—including reproductive history and a family history of breast cancer—account for only 5 percent of the difference between the high- and low-incidence areas. Possible environmental risk factors, which are associated with higher income and education, make a larger contribution—14 percent—to the difference between the two areas.

Among the findings of the Newton Breast Cancer Study was that 45 percent of women in high-incidence areas reported using professional dry cleaning at least once a month, compared with 32 percent in low-incidence areas.