So, like many teenagers, the sophomore at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington County went online. She e-mailed three or four chemistry professors across the country asking for help. Only Paul Roepe, then-chairman of Georgetown University’s chemistry department, seemed intrigued. He took on the research “for fun,” he said.
But what started out as something to “sponsor the kid’s curiosity” prompted a chain reaction in the university lab: an e-mail exchange, an invitation to collaborate and, this week, a paper published online in a peer-reviewed environmental journal. The paper gives new details about the amount of a toxic chemical that lingers in wool, cotton and polyester clothing after it is dry-cleaned.
“At the end of the day, nobody, I mean nobody, has previously done this simple thing — gone out there to several different dry cleaners and tested different types of cloth” to see how much of the chemical persists, said Roepe, who supervised the study.
Dantzler, with help from her mother, sewed squares of wool, cotton, polyester and silk into the lining of seven identical men’s jackets, then took them to be cleaned from one to six times at seven Northern Virginia dry cleaners. The cleaners, who were not identified, had no prior knowledge of the experiment.
She kept the patches in plastic bags in the freezer — to preserve the samples — and went to Georgetown once or twice a week to do the chemical analysis with two graduate students, Katy Sherlach and Alexander Gorka. The research team found that perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent that has been linked to cancer and neurological damage, stayed in the fabrics and that levels increased with repeat cleanings, particularly in wool. The study was published online Tuesday in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.
Between 65 percent and 70 percent of the country’s estimated 25,000 dry cleaning facilities use the solvent, known as PCE or perc, industry representatives said. Government regulations and voluntary industry guidelines exist for atmospheric concentrations in the workplace, and there has been a long-running fight between environmentalists and the federal government over how quickly the chemical should be phased out for dry cleaners.
No standards exist for levels in dry-cleaned fabric, public health experts said.
Without further research, Roepe said, 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.
“Like cigarettes, like UV sun exposure, the risk depends on how much and how long,” he said.
Previous research on the chemical has focused on the effects of inhaling vapors in dry cleaning shops. Previous studies have also tried to determine what might be in the air of a closet, or the air of a room, without knowing how much was in the clothes to begin with, or how long ago the clothes were dry cleaned, Roepe said.