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Dry cleaning and bladder cancer

There are times when your clothes have a particular odor when you pick them up from the dry cleaner. The odor is similar to the smell of gasoline, and it is normal to worry if wearing the clothes are harmful to your body. Thankfully, it is safe to say that the clothes from the dry cleaner are not going to cause any harmful health effects. That is because the amount of the harmful substances on the clothes are much lower than the normal permissible level.

However, is working at a dry cleaner for a long period of time safe too? It is not. If exposed to the chemicals used for performing those jobs for a long period, it can affect your health in various ways. Recent studies have shown that it can even be related to cancer.

About 85% of the dry cleaners use a substance called tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene). This substance causes general irritation symptoms such as itchiness, coughing, headache, etc. What’s more important is that this substance has a chance of causing cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified tetrachloroethylene “probably carcinogenic to humans.” It is specifically related to bladder cancer, and according to a study, if someone worked at a dry cleaner for at least 5 years, with 20 years of latency, the chances of getting bladder cancer increases 4.1 times.

Then, what should you do if you are treating tetrachloroethylene in a dry cleaner? I’d like to suggest two things. One is knowing the symptoms of bladder cancer, and decreasing exposure to harmful substances.

First, knowing the symptoms of bladder cancer. The first and most common symptoms of bladder cancer is hematuria. Hematuria is a symptom when blood is spotted in the urine. There are times when the urine has a red tint to it, but there are instances where the color of the urine doesn’t change at all, and the blood is only recognizable through a microscope. Therefore, it is crucial to take the urine test on a regular basis. It is possible that hematuria might not mean bladder cancer, it is more likely that it is an infection or a urinary tract stone. However, if working or have worked at a dry cleaner, these signals should not be taken lightly. Other symptoms of bladder cancer include urinating too often, suddenly having the urge to urinate, experiencing pain while urinating, and even a ureter obstruction causing lower limb edema and back pain.

Secondly, decreasing exposure to harmful substances is also very important. Other than the legal, administrative regulations such as wearing protectors, and having a ventilation system, there are measures that individuals can take also. Avoiding eating and smoking in the dry cleaner decreases consuming harmful substances through the mouth. After working in the dry cleaner, change out of the work clothes and wash the work clothes often. Wash your hands often, and taking a shower right after work is also good to take care of your health.

Finding out that your job can cause illness is sad. If that illness is cancer, it is even more so. However, most occupational diseases are preventable and possible to detect early, and it is the same with bladder cancer caused by working at a dry cleaner. It would be great if those who worked at a dry cleaner or will work at a dry cleaner should take an interest in knowing the symptoms of bladder cancer and how to avoid exposure to the harmful substances.

  • This article was contributed to the Korean Times New York. June 19, 2018

  • Contributor to this article: Joshua Yoon

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