Rx for Readers: Dry-cleaning dangers

What effect can chemicals have on residents living nearby?

May 31, 2012 12:13
3 minute read.
dry cleaning

dry cleaning (DO NOT REPUBLISH). (photo credit: MCT)


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I am a retired physician. I have been told and read articles to the effect that walls of apartments built above dry cleaning stores are in danger of absorbing perchlorethylene, a grease solvent used in dry cleaning, which raises the risk of cancer, miscarriages and Parkinson’s disease, among other problems. The chemical is found in greater amounts in the area around dry cleaners and can affect the surrounding neighborhood.

Should one refrain from buying or renting an apartment in an apartment building that houses a dry cleaning store? Does Israel have any rules which forbid dry cleaning stores from being in apartment houses?In addition, what should people do when they get their suits and dresses, quilts and sweaters back from the cleaners? Should they air them out before bringing them into the house? Should the items be in the car when picking up children from school or when there is food in the car?

M.S., Kfar Saba

Environmental health expert Prof. Elihu Richter of the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine answers:

Until about a decade ago, dry cleaning establishments were notorious for releasing perc volatiles to the adjacent environment, including apartments next to and above them and the surrounding neighborhood. And yes, there can be a slow release of the chemical from wall surfaces and clothing. All the foregoing can produce exposures that increase risk of cancer, miscarriages and Parkinson’s and various neurotoxic effects, and possibly a statistically detectable risk for schizophrenia in offspring exposed in utero.

There is no such thing as a safe threshold for such exposures. If there are odors coming from the store, that by definition means there could be a problem, as do sensations of dizziness, headache, grogginess and more. But the absence of odors and these sensations does not mean there is no problem.

In the past 10 years or so, there have been substantial improvements in the technology of dry cleaning to meet new standards of design and performance. The ideal solution is the use of substitutes that do not contain volatile organic compounds. But even if perc is used, newer machines are much more “enclosed” when they operate, and exposures are much lower.

The burden of proof is on those selling you the apartment to produce measurements showing ambient levels below the threshold of detection from repeated tests. Better to be safe than sorry. I suggest consulting with the Health Ministry’s environmental toxicology division for further information on measurements.

I suppose that walking the suit to the car will air it out. There is no guarantee of zero risk from anything, except maybe orange juice. But we have to put this theoretical risk in perspective in relation to all the other more real ones – diesel fuel, speed on the roads, cell phones to the head and so on.

By the way, I was walking on Broadway in Manhattan recently and passed a dry cleaning shop using organic water-based agents as substitutes, thereby totally eliminating the risk. The manager, a gracious and perky Chinese lady, happily told me why perc is no longer necessary. I would like to see the same thing with all solvent-based paints: Make them water-based, as they did in Sweden. It would put the other companies out of business.

I read a newspaper supplement recently with recipes for baking high individual cakes in ordinary tin cans. Is it dangerous to do so? Do they contain plastic or glue or other substances as coating on the inside? Is it safe to heat such containers? S.T., Jerusalem

Health Ministry chief toxicologist Dr. Tamar Berman replies:

Metal-based food and beverage cans can contain the industrial chemical bisphenol A (BPA). Since these containers are intended for food storage and preservation and not for baking foods, I would not recommend baking in such cans. BPA levels rise in food when containers/products made with the chemical are heated and come in contact with the food.

Rx for Readers welcomes queries from readers about medical problems. Experts will answer those we find most interesting. Write Rx for Readers, The Jerusalem Post, POB 81, Jerusalem 91000, fax your question to Judy Siegel-Itzkovich at (02) 538-9527, or e-mail it to jsiegel@jpost.com, giving your initials, age and place of residence.

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