This Is Your Brain on Dry Cleaning

New research shows that there may be a link between dry-cleaning chemicals and mental illness.

Rack of dry cleaning

You’ve probably heard that dry-cleaning chemicals are dangerous to your physical health, linked to everything from kidney, liver and nervous-system damage to increased risk of cancer. Now, new research from Boston University links the industrial dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene (perc) with an increased risk of mental illness.

When studying the health history of people who lived in the Cape Cod area of Massachusetts in the 1960s and ’70s, when the city’s water pipes were unwittingly laced with a perc-filled adhesive, the team — headed by Ann Aschengrau, ScD, an epidemiologist at Boston University — found that exposure to perc in any amount was associated with an increased risk of developing bipolar disorder by 80 percent and posttraumatic stress disorder by 50 percent. Separate studies have linked the chemical to higher levels of depression and anxiety. 

While it’s not yet proven that simply wearing dry-cleaned clothes puts you at risk for developing mental or physical disorders, researchers still advise caution. The EPA recommends looking for operations that use the solvent-free wet-cleaning method. (Not all cleaners that advertise themselves as “green” are created equal; Google your city name and “wet cleaning” to find a suitable facility near you.) Or, skip the dry cleaner altogether. Hand wash and air dry your most delicate items, and freshen lightly soiled clothes by tumbling them with a damp towel and an all-natural aromatic sachet in your dryer for 15 minutes.


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