If you have ever opened a dry-cleaning bag and put on a freshly laundered garment, you know that dry-cleaning can make clothes look and smell almost new. That freshness, however, is created using chemicals that may be potentially harmful to employees who work in the dry-cleaning process. Although today’s dry-cleaners are moving away from using perchloroethylene, a toxic chemical that may cause cancer, the work-related health effects of the chemicals taking its place are unknown.

In a new evaluation from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and a state health department, researchers tested air samples in four dry-cleaning shops for two types of alternative chemicals to perchloroethylene. In two of the shops, they tested for butylal and the chemicals it can decompose into, formaldehyde and butanol. In the other two shops, they tested for high-flashpoint hydrocarbons, which are chemicals that require high temperatures to ignite. They found that air concentrations of the chemicals in all four shops were below occupational exposure limits set by NIOSH and other occupational health organizations, except for butylal, which does not have exposure limits. Workers had the highest airborne exposures while loading and unloading the dry-cleaning machines and pressing fabrics. In another finding, the researchers noted possible skin exposures to the chemicals. Since many of the employers and workers were not native English speakers and had limited English proficiency, the researchers used interpreters during the site visits and provided translated information back to the participants in the language they could understand best. The health hazard evaluation also recently was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.

To minimize exposures, the researchers made several recommendations to shop owners and employees:

  1. Wear eye protection and appropriate hand protection when cleaning the waste dry-cleaning chemical container.
  2. Use NIOSH-certified respirators, not surgical masks, to protect against dust and chemical droplets in the air.
  3. Pour or brush the new, butylal-containing spot cleaner, rather than spraying it, which would also prevent creating a fire hazard.
  4. Follow safety and health recommendations on products’ safety data sheets when using any spot cleaners.
  5. Ensure the dry-cleaning shop has adequate ventilation.
  6. Periodically monitor exposures, with help from local government agencies, in shops that use new dry-cleaning chemicals, especially after changes in work practices and conditions.

Further study of the possible health hazards of alternative dry-cleaners, especially butylal, is needed, according to the researchers.

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