Monday, November 26, 2007

Wet-wash wonder

A local business offers an alternative to dry cleaning that shuns
potentially toxic chemicals.

November 26, 2007

Carson Hanrahan sends his suit jackets to the cleaners, just as
the care labels advise him to do.

His jackets and other clothes don't get the typical chemical dry-
cleaning, however. They're cleaned with water and detergent in
what is basically a big, computer-controlled washing machine.

"The chemicals they use are friendlier for the environment, so
that makes me feel better about it," said Hanrahan, who lives in

A new trend in dry cleaning -- wet cleaning -- has reached

One Portland-based chain, Accent Cleaners, now is promoting
the service as a nontoxic, eco-friendly alternative to the
traditional "dry" process. The company invested in two
computer-controlled washing machines that use water and
detergent and, it says, can safely clean virtually anything, from
silk dresses to wool suits.

"You've got to be gentle with it," said Ferd Bailey, manager at
Accent Cleaners on Riverside Street, but "soap and water does
much better anyway."

Cleaners and customers around the country have been shifting
toward wet cleaning for several years to reduce the use of the
dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, or perc. Although the
chemical's use is much more carefully controlled now than it was
years ago, it is a suspected human carcinogen and the reason
state officials are testing soil and groundwater at 187 current
and former dry-cleaning sites statewide. Most of those sites are
expected to have contamination, according to the Maine
Department of Environmental Protection.

Traditional dry cleaning isn't dry at all, but the chemical used
does not shrink fabrics the way water can, under the right

In the case of dry cleaning, clothes are placed in a large washing
machine and bathed in perc, a degreasing chemical that also has
a variety of industrial uses. The chemical then essentially is
vacuumed out of the clothes, which come out of the machine dry
and mostly wrinkle-free.

The perc itself is contained in the machine and reused, except
for the sludge that is removed for disposal.

Accent's new wet-clean machine is similar to an industrial-size
washing machine, except that it has about 30 settings and can
handle clothes much more gently than any residential model
does. It's also a lot more expensive. Ingrid Noren, a co-owner of
Accent Cleaners, said the larger of the company's two machines
cost $13,000.

The large investment makes wet cleaning an unusual service in
the dry-cleaning business. It's also more labor-intensive,
because clothes have to be air-dried and require more pressing
to get wrinkles out.

On the other hand, "the wet cleaning doesn't generate any
waste," Noren said. The company charges the same for wet
cleaning or dry cleaning.

Accent has branches in Portland, Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth,
although all the cleaning is done in Portland. The company also
cleans clothes dropped off at some laundromats.

Some dry cleaners offer different alternatives to perc. Pratt
Abbott Cleaners, for example, offers dry cleaning using a
different solvent that it says is less environmentally toxic. Also,
around the country, some dry cleaners have switched to liquid
carbon dioxide as the chemical of choice.

Many dry cleaners offer wet cleaning in conventional machines,
but won't put dry-clean-only garments in them. Accent will wet-
clean almost anything.

The owners and employees tested and fine-tuned the process
on unclaimed clothes, as well as on their own wardrobes.

Nils Noren, a co-owner, put his own tuxedo through the
machine. Not only did it clean well, he said, but he took
advantage of the wet fabric to stretch it just enough to make it
fit again.

Ingrid Noren plans to test it on a collection of wedding gowns,
which are too delicate for dry cleaning.

"Almost everything can be wet cleaned," she said. One exception
is tailored silk suits, because the different types of fabrics react
differently to water, she said.

The machine uses cold water to prevent colors from running,
and it actually removes stains better than the chemical wash
does, she said.

Hanrahan, the customer from Portland, is a big fan of the wet-
cleaning process. He uses it for all of his dry-clean-only clothes
and hasn't had any problems, he said.

"I'm a smoker, and it actually works out better," he said. "The
clothes just feel fresher when they come out."

Hanrahan wet-cleans his laundry through Washboard Laundry
on Danforth Street in Portland. Washboard has made a name for
itself as an energy-efficient, eco-friendly laundromat, and it
sends its dry cleaning to Accent so customers can go wet and
avoid perc.

"It's one of the reasons why a lot of people come to us --
because they know we offer it," said Jason Wentworth, the
owner. "Five years ago, hardly anyone knew that wet cleaning
existed. Once they learn what
chemical dry cleaning is really all about -- that their clothes are
soaked in a liquid petrochemical solvent -- then they're pretty
open to wet cleaning."

Most of his customers now request the service instead of dry
cleaning, and complaints about damaged clothing have been as
rare with wet cleaning as they have been with dry cleaning,
Wentworth said.

"What it's trying to do is essentially mimic hand washing. The
machine is trying to simulate that in a much more sophisticated
way," he said.

Eventually, Wentworth predicted, perc will be banned because of
its health effects. "Then solutions like wet cleaning will become
the norm," he said.

There's no evidence that the chemical wash makes dry-cleaned
clothes hazardous to wear, but it can be dangerous at industrial
exposure levels and it has been found to contaminate soil,
groundwater and even neighboring homes and businesses.

Perc vapors can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat or skin.
Long-term exposure causes cancer in laboratory animals and is
considered a possible human carcinogen by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency.

While federal and state laws now require that perc be carefully
controlled, dry cleaners used to exhaust vapors straight into the
air, and spills and leaks were common. Perc that ends up in the
soil can contaminate groundwater and create vapors that seep
into foundations and accumulate inside buildings.

Last summer, the state DEP found unsafe levels of air
contamination in a Sanford apartment building that once housed
a dry cleaner. The building now has a sub-foundation ventilation
system to keep the chemical vapors outside.

Tracy Weston of the DEP has identified 187 potential
contamination sites where there is, or was, a dry cleaner. The
state is testing the soils at each site, but only has enough
funding to test two a year, she said.

"We're looking at ones we think would cause a public health
threat," she said, adding that when she looks for the pollution,
she usually finds it.

Neither the state nor the cleaners have conducted any actual
cleanups yet, she said. That process probably would be
expensive because the chemical can sink deep into the soil and
the groundwater.

Accent has been experimenting with wet cleaning since the
Norens bought the business about five years ago. It recently
began promoting it as an alternative.

Wet cleaning now is a small but growing part of their business.

"I think it's the only way it's going to be in the future," Nils
Noren said.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

Copyright © 2007 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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