A New Wave of Dry Cleaning:

"Naturally Clean" Offers A Safe, Environmentally-Friendly Alternative

By Susie Davidson


When it comes to possible health hazards, it's often ironically the very mundane, seemingly innocuous daily tasks that warrant the greatest scrutiny.

Such is the case with dry cleaning. Who would think that dropping delicate clothing off, to come back clean smelling and freshly pressed, could pose a problem?

It could, according to Shelly Mars, owner of two Brookline Naturally Clean stores. It's called perchlorethylene, or "perc," dry cleaning's traditional cleaning agent. This chemical with the cute name is listed by the EPA as a possible carcinogen and hazardous ground and air pollutant.

The International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) classifies perc as a "probable human carcinogen." A Greenpeace report states that it causes "widespread harm to the health of workers, people living near dry cleaning shops, the general public and the global environment.

"Perc is known to attack the central nervous system, and can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness, memory problems and numerous reproductive problems, including

fertility problems in men and menstrual disorders in women. Among female dry cleaning workers, studies have shown a risk of miscarriage that is three to four times above normal. Perc is also known to contaminate mother's milk."

The report goes on to cite studies linking cancer of the esophagus, lung, kidney and liver to perc exposure. Leukemia and cancers of the pancreas, bladder and cervix are linked to water contaminated with perc.

Clearly, perc is an equal-opportunity destroyer.

Mars, who has just brought Naturally Clean to both the Village, at 1 Harvard St., and the St. Mary's area, at 1018 Beacon St., is a longtime town resident who she has run the Brookline Tennis Program for 17 years and has orchestrated the turnover of other grassroots efforts into more viable, greener operations.

"My passion for long term grassroots community involvement met my drive to build a successful, environmentally successful organization," says Mars. "Naturally Clean is my entrepreneurially green dream. I am able to advocate not only social marketing choice and planet sustainability but also finely cleaned clothes by any standards."

Sounds great - but in truth, safe, non-toxic methods of dry cleaning represent a mere two percent of the dry cleaning taking place nationally, according to Mars.

An increase does seem warranted. Ontario's Pollution Probe says perc "is a known toxin and suspected carcinogen, and a source of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which, when combined with NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions, result in ground-level ozone formation."

Low-lying ozone, a major constituent of smog, damages the lungs and respiratory systems. The government knows this; OSHA has limited perc concentration in dry cleaning stores to 100 ppm (certain states go even stricter).

In addition, the industry's solid waste production, mainly hangers and plastic bags, has come under fire.

"The total removal of perc is beneficial for the environment," concurs Town Chief of Environmental Health Pat Maloney. "The industry has been leaning towards this; all drycleaners have been mandated to reduce usage. The State Department of Environmental Protection has ordered that existing facilities comply with these new recommendations.

"However, they are still not perc-free," he cautions. "Now, here is a company, the first one in Brookline to my knowledge, that is leading the way."

"I just dropped off a pair of pants at Naturally Clean," says Dr. Alan Balsam, Director of Public Health, who obviously agrees.

What's a family cleaner to do? Switching to single "dry-to-dry" machines, rather than transferring garments, can recover and recycle 90 percent of perc, but cost $28,000. Refrigerated condensers recover 40-50 percent. Carbon Adsorption Units, or sniffers, also help, but require high maintenance. Though small business organizations and state agencies often assist, it's a costly and difficult process.

The National Waste Prevention Coalition's Model Cleaners Project and other efforts collect and reuse hangers, and use durable bags instead of single-use plastic disposable bags.

In the past decade, new clothes cleaning technologies have emerged which are based on water, new soaps and finishing agents such as liquid carbon dioxide, an industrial by-product long used in cleaning by the military. It is diverted from the atmosphere, and thus does not contribute to global warming. Computerized machines with controlled agitation are now available, as are high-tech dryers which regulate humidity levels to prevent shrinkage.

"Naturally Clean is the only Greater Boston dry cleaner to offer a silicone cleaning process, which would qualify for a recently introduced 'environmentally friendly' tax credit," says Mars. "We also use surface tension to clean garments, leaving them as soft and supple as if they were washed in a mineral bath, with no offensive, residual odor."

"Naturally Clean," says its communications consultant Alicia Gordon, "advances the safest methods of dry cleaning available, which distinguishes Shelly Mars and her organization as notable leaders in this minority field not only in Boston, but nationally, too.

"Shelly's drive to succeed - whether in sales, teaching or building a new business, is predicated on offering the highest quality of service in a responsible manner."

Time to drop off your duds? Consider your health and the earth - and Mars' conscientious alternative.