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Laundered Shop Towels: What You Don’t Know Could Hurt You
By: By Rory Holmes, President & Cos Camelio, Technical Director
INDA (Association of the Nonwovens Fabric Industry)

May 2005

It’s a scene played out at countless worksites across the country on a daily basis: a factory worker, tradesperson or mechanic with dirty hands or a sweaty brow grabs his trusty old shop towel to wipe away the sweat and grime. What happens next is anyone’s guess. That’s because the shop towel the worker is using could be contaminated with oil, grease or dangerous heavy metals – even if the towel is “freshly laundered.”

While one might assume that a “freshly laundered” shop towel is fresh and clean, the fact is that commercial laundries aren’t always able to remove the tiny bits of metal shavings, lead, oil and other chemicals that can become embedded in the towels by previous users. Embedded metal shavings can injure faces and hands, resulting in lost work time. Metal shavings can also damage surfaces by causing scratches. And residual oils and chemicals can cause skin rashes. Heavy metals can cause additional health problems, as well.

The issue of contaminated laundered shop towels that contain traces of heavy metals, grease or dangerous elements after being laundered came to light this past winter, after a study by Gradient1 published in the International Nonwovens Journal called attention to the problem. Since then, a California State Assembly member and a major labor union have taken up the cause – attempting to severely restrict (or possibly ban) the use of such towels in the workplace.

In fact, California State Assembly member Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) introduced Assembly Bill 2732 in 2004, which would require the suppliers of cloth shop towels to affix a warning label alerting users that the towel may have been in contact with hazardous materials. After introducing the bill, Dymally said in a statement in the Los Angeles Sentinel, that what is “troubling” is that the cloth towels are “typically contaminated by one customer, laundered, and returned to a different customer whose unsuspecting workers believe they are using clean towels to wipe their hands, arms and faces.” The bill was subsequently withdrawn due to some fairly forceful behind-the-scenes opposition.

“One way or another,” said Dymally in the Los Angeles Sentinel article, “my intention is to eliminate so called ‘toxic towels’ from the workplace in California and send a message to workers and citizens across the country that we care about their safety and the environment.”

“We supported this legislation because it is a very important issue to our 120,000 members,” said Willie Pelote, political and legislative director for California’s AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees). “We need the Legislature to fix this problem.”

Exposure Analysis

In the Gradient Study published in the INJ, researchers collected samples of laundered shop towels which had been used and then laundered from 23 locations (a variety of manufacturing and industrial sites, including steel fabricators, printers, automotive parts producers, aircraft/aerospace companies and others), using different laundries, in 14 states throughout the U.S. The laundered shop towels were then submitted to an independent laboratory, which analyzed them for 27 heavy metals and for oil and grease. All of the laundered shop towels contained oil and grease, and many contained elevated levels of heavy metals, such as lead, according to the study.

The problem? The Gradient Study’s analysis showed how elevated levels of heavy metals on shop towels can get onto hands and then inadvertently into the mouth, where they might be ingested. Laundered shop towels can also come into direct contact with the lips when towels are used to wipe the face. AFSCME’s Pelote also voiced concern that toxic elements contained on towels could be transferred to workers’ homes and families if towels are taken home, or if the toxic elements are otherwise transferred from the worker’s skin, clothing or tools.

According to the published study, the average amount of lead found in the tested laundered shop towels exceeded CalEPA’s Prop 65 levels for reproductive effects (called Maximum Allowable Daily Levels, or MADLs) by 26 times. The maximum amount of lead found (within the plausible range of exposure) exceeded CalEPA MADL by 69 times.

The Gradient Study went on to note that, if workers used 10 laundered shop towels per day (not uncommon in many worksites), the following could occur (See Table 1):

  • The maximum intake for antimony may exceed the U.S. EPA’s oral reference dose (RfD) for noncancer effects.

  • The maximum intake for cadmium may exceed ATSDR’s oral Minimal Risk Level (MRL) for noncancer effects by 1.2-fold.

  • The average intake and the maximum intake for cadmium may exceed CalEPA’s MADL for reproductive effects by 1.3-fold and 4-fold respectively.

  • The average and maximum estimated exposure to lead may exceed CalEPA’s MADL by 106-fold and 268-fold respectively.

  • Both the average intake and the maximum intake for lead may exceed CalEPA’s NSRL for cancer.

  • Environmental Misconceptions In addition to being a potential health and safety problem for workers, there are many misconceptions about the environmental benefits of rental shop towels. For example, a study conducted by Lockheed Martin Environmental Services2 found that 25 percent more solid waste is sent to landfills from the processing of laundered wipes than from disposables. The study went on to state that sludge from laundered wipes is potentially more threatening to human health and the environment, noting that “water washed sludge contains approximately 22 percent water which could increase the mobility of these pollutants into soil and ground water.”

    For those concerned about the impact of laundered shop towels versus disposable nonwoven wipers on landfills and the environment as a whole, consider these additional facts:

  • Laundered shop towels account for a small fraction (about 5 percent according to some industry estimates) of the articles cleaned in a typical industrial laundry, but are responsible for the majority (upwards of 95 percent) of contaminant loading (organics, inorganics and metals) in the wastewater effluent. 2

  • Disposable wipers contribute less than 1 cubic foot for every 1,000 cubic feet of landfill volume. That equates to one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s landfilled waste4.

  • Even reusable/laundered shop towels end up in a landfill after about 10-15 uses, according to the EPA.2

  • Proposed EPA Ruling

    Currently, laundered shop towels are not regulated by EPA and RCRA (Resource Conservation Recovery Act). However, disposable towels are regulated. RCRA has required nonwoven wipers used with industrial solvents and other materials to be handled and disposed of as hazardous waste forcing users to meet stringent and expensive requirements for labeling, transport and disposal. On the other hand, laundered shop towels have not been considered as hazardous waste material even when saturated with solvents.

    Bottom-line: it is more difficult to dispose of disposables than the laundered shop towels due to lack of regulation on laundered towels.

    EPA has studied the hazardous wastes on laundered shop towels and the hazardous contamination that the laundries discharge every year because of the contamination on the shop towels. It is estimated that 80% of the 13 million pounds of hazardous contamination industrial laundries discharge into municipal sewer systems every year comes from the wastewater of laundered shop towels.3

    “Just imagine the polluted water going down the drain,” commented Assemblyman Dymally, noting that the issue has nationwide implications.

    The good news is that EPA has proposed a rule that if passed would make laundered shop towels subject to provisions of the RCRA. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is entitled, “Hazardous Wa