When dry-cleaning attacks
By Michael R. Shannon
web posted September 12, 2011
The pre–Labor Day holiday run up was a good week for stating the obvious in the Washington Post.
An area high school student, who shall remain nameless, concluded that outsourcing her science project to the parents was passé, so she decided to see if it would be possible to recruit an actual scientist to do the work.
The enterprising young lady emailed "three or four chemistry professors" to see if they would be interested in analyzing how much of the chemical used to dry–clean clothes remained in the clothing after it was returned to the customer.
Most of her targets ignored her -- possibly because they believe in 'global warming' and their cleaning involves going down to the river to beat cargo shorts on the rocks -- but one recipient at Georgetown University agreed.
Sure enough, after extensive cleaning and testing, the brainiacs at Georgetown discovered that dry–cleaned sweater wool retained a perchloroethylene (PERC) level "as high as 126 parts per million."
As my lovely wife, Janet, said, "Why wouldn't it and so what?"
For that matter, sometimes my pants return from the dry–cleaners with crumbs in a pocket and I don't make a federal case of it. (Although after reading about this science project I doubt I'll be eating them again.)
I'd rather have that new dry–cleaned smell on my pants than the gravy stain that was there when I dropped them off.
To add a bit of context, the feds allow wine makers a sulfite level of 350 parts per million and people are intentionally drinking vino; to say nothing of asparagus makers who cool the crop in water containing 125 parts per million of chlorine -- 41 times the amount you'll find in your neighborhood pool.
But don't get me wrong -- I'm not criticizing our girl scientist. Her idea was simple and achievable -- once she recruited a major university to do the heavy lifting. It reminds me of a project my engineer roommate was assigned in college. The professor told them to improve the design of an existing product, but to keep it simple. So students were redesigning Saturn rockets, gas spectrometers and racecars. Lester, on the other hand, showed how drilling four holes in dorm soap dishes would keep the Irish Spring from turning into mush. He received an 'A.'
The problem I have is with the coverage of the project, which proves once again you don't have to be hysterical to report on the environment, but it helps. The Post reporter writes as if she just discovered salmonella in her sprouts.
The story moves from the analysis of PERC remaining in small squares of cloth to discussing potential devastating health effects, particularly CANCER!!!, with the usual chemical alarmists.
One heavy–breathing example: "it was difficult to say how much risk consumers might face from wearing, say, dry–cleaned wool pants for a year or breathing air from a closet full of dry–cleaned clothes."
I can see it now -- edgy high school rebels who are pushing the limits will no longer be found under the bleachers stealing a few puffs. Instead, they'll congregate inside a walk–in closet sniffing dad's Brooks Brothers while the au pair wonders why Brittany seems so jittery.
A worry–wart at the University of Pennsylvania thought someone "who delivers dry cleaning for a living could face higher exposures than workers in a plant." Dry cleaning delivery? Hmmm. Oh, yes, now I remember! He's the man who arrives each morning after the milkman drops off the 2 percent and just before the Webvan driver gets here with the rest of the groceries.
Besides the threat to imaginary occupations, there is also danger for consumers. The team used a computer model to calculate that four newly–cleaned wool sweaters, placed beside a golden retriever inside a hot SUV with the windows rolled up, might produce the dreaded 126 parts per million of PERC that exceeds OSHA limits.
But the good news is the dog's deathbed was extremely soft.
The problem I have with that 'evidence' is that I don't pile clean sweaters inside my car like a North Korean nuclear waste dump. My cleaners may be cheap, but the clothes come to me in a fume–trapping bag.
Besides the symptoms of PERC overexposure are fairly obvious. If you feel confused, dizzy, drowsy, irritated and have a headache your discomfort is not being caused by your husband's insatiable demands for sex or a bad batch of sour mash.
You've simply been spending too much time in the closet with the door closed admiring your wardrobe.
Michael R. Shannon is a public relations and advertising consultant with corporate, government and political experience around the globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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