Dirty secrets of clean shop towels uncovered
Environmental and risk science consulting firm Gradient reports that clean shop towels could be a source of heavy metal exposure for manufacturing industry workers in the United States.
It is typical in the U.S. manufacturing industry that workers are provided with shop towels for wiping themselves and the equipment they use. The towels are collected by industrial launderers, washed and redistributed.
Who would imagine that freshly laundered clean towels could be putting nearly 12 million American workers at risk? The industries included in the study range from equipment manufacturing to printing, from aviation and automotive work to food and beverage packaging.
Twenty-nine metals were studied, with those found in remarkable amounts in shop towels including the heavy metals antimony, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, and molybdenum. The concern is that the heavy metals can be transferred from the towels to the hands and mouths of the workers, leading to ingestion of the heavy metals.
Gradient estimated the possible amounts of heavy metals that could be taken from the towels and compared the estimates to allowed levels based on guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and to the California Environmental Protection Agency's (CalEPA) Proposition 65 regulatory limits for cancer or reproductive effects.
They report that for the worker using the typical amount of towels per day, average exposure to the heavy metals listed above is higher than the allowed levels, which may lead to health problems, including cancer.
As an added twist, the shop towels may introduce metals that are not otherwise in a facility, again increasing the risks to the workers, who cannot even see, smell, or feel the heavy metal contaminants.
Barbara Beck, Ph.D., DABT, principal at Gradient, said in a press release from the firm that "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." She explained further "Without knowing it, manufacturing workers may be ingesting certain heavy metals at elevated levels from this unexpected source. 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."
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