In need of a new solvent, dry cleaners turn to petroleum

As dry cleaners stop using the solvent perchloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen that’s being phased out in California, New York, Toronto, and elsewhere, some are choosing a surprising replacement: petroleum-based solvents. Um … what? Turns out petroleum was the solvent of choice in the industry’s early years, until it was deemed too flammable (for real!), and was replaced by perc in the 1930s. But returning to it can be cheaper than installing entirely new “wet cleaning” systems that use less-harmful substances like water or carbon dioxide. And because it comes from the ground, some cleaners are even advertising it as “organic.” Crying foul: organic advocates and other sensible people. “Technically, from a chemistry standpoint, it’s organic,” says Chris Tebbs, head of the International Drycleaners Congress. “But it’s a little bit meaningless. Being honest about it, all solvents are toxic.” Laughing all the way to the bank: ExxonMobil, one of the leading makers of the petro-solvent.

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