Elevated Metal Levels in Shop Towels May Put Workers at Risk

July 12, 2011
A new study suggests that shop towels may contain damaging levels of heavy metals – even after laundering.

The environmental and risk science firm Gradient released the study “Evaluation of Potential Exposure to Metals in Laundered Shop Towels” on July 11. The study finds that commercially laundered towels can exposure workers to elevated metal levels that could exceed agency guidelines.

“Manufacturers face an unexpected worker exposure issue: Workers using just one or two shop towels a day may be exposed to elevated levels of heavy metals, compared to health-based exposure guidelines,” said Barbara Beck, Ph.D., DABT, principal at Gradient.

Workers using the typical amount of towels per day (12) could have an average exposure to antimony, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead and molybdenum that exceed the health-based exposure guidelines set by EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the report stated.

This research was commissioned by Kimberly-Clark Professional, which has a vested interest in the study results.

An Invisible Hazard

Because workers cannot see, smell or feel the contaminants, they remain unaware that the laundered towels could pose a hazard.

The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that nearly 12 million Americans are employed in manufacturing. Workers in industries ranging from equipment manufacturing to printing, aviation and automotive work, food and beverage packaging and medical device manufacturing use laundered shop towels for wiping equipment, as well as their hands and faces. Industrial launderers collect the towels from various workplaces, wash them together and send them out again for use by the same or other businesses.

“Without knowing it, manufacturing workers may be ingesting certain heavy metals at elevated levels from this unexpected source,” said Beck. “For some of these metals, the amounts ingested may be greater than allowed in drinking water on a daily basis. Because towels are used and then laundered multiple times and are often delivered to different companies each time, workers may even be exposed to metals that do not otherwise exist in their work environment.”

Researchers analyzed data from laundered shop towels submitted by 26 North American companies across various manufacturing industries. The towels were submitted to an independent lab for testing.

It is unlikely that metals found in the tested towels could come from a single industry source, researchers said. For instance, beryllium is not commonly used in manufacturing sites, but was present in a number of the towels. Launderers combine towels from multiple industries before washing, which may contribute to this finding.

The study can be downloaded as a PDF.

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