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Laundering Doesn’t Protect Against Heavy Metals, Study Shows

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

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A study by an environmental and risk science consulting firm shows that commercially laundered shop towels contain levels of heavy metals that could expose workers to unsafe exposure.

Shops participating in the study included a painting company in Texas and steel fabricators, among other types of manufacturing facilities.

Gradient, a nationally recognized environmental and risk science consulting firm, has announced the publication of a study that finds elevated levels of heavy metals in tested laundered shop towels.

 Gradient shop towel threat

 Images: Gradient

The study, “Evaluation of Potential Exposure to Metals in Laundered Shop Towels,” builds upon an earlier analysis published in 2003 and concludes that, even after commercial laundering, the towels studied retain elevated levels of metals.

This could result in worker exposures that exceed agency guidelines, Gradient says, which are based on various health effects such as cancer. Additionally, the tested shop towels may unexpectedly introduce new metals that are not otherwise in a facility.

Exposure to Heavy Metals in Shop Towels Can Exceed Health-Based Limits

Gradient compared the estimated amounts of ingested metals to various health-based criteria, including from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a federal public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, estimated metal intakes were compared to the California Environmental Protection Agency’s (CalEPA) Proposition 65 regulatory limits for cancer or reproductive effects.

The Gradient study finds that, for the worker using the typical amount of towels per day, average exposure to seven metals (antimony, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, and molybdenum) may exceed health-based exposure guidelines set by these agencies.

For example, based on the calculations discussed in the 2011 Gradient study, a worker may ingest up to 3,600 times more lead on a daily basis than recommended by CalEPA.Excessive metal exposure over time may present a health concern.

Workers Not Aware of Heavy Metal Exposure Issue

Workers cannot see, smell, or feel heavy metal contaminants on “clean” laundered shop towels, so they are not aware that the towels could contain elevated levels of tiny metal particles, invisible to the eye. Workers who touch towels with their hands may unknowingly transfer these metals from their hands to their mouths.

Across numerous industries workers use laundered shop towels for wiping equipment, as well as their hands and faces. Industrial launderers then collect the towels from different workplaces, wash them together, and send them out again for use by the same or other businesses.

Gradient shop towel threat

“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, who has testified before the U.S. Congress on lead toxicology issues.

“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.”

Commissioned by Kimberly-Clark Professional, Gradient 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.

The new report, “Evaluation of Potential Exposure to Metals in Laundered Shop Towels,” can be found here.


Tagged categories: Health and safety; Lead; Regulations; Research

Comment from Karen Fischer, (7/21/2011, 2:49 PM)

I find it interesting that Kimberly Clark, who commissioned this study by Gradient, also manufactures a one-use,disposable product "Kleenex Hand Towels" which was launched in March of 2010. The study may be valid, but the motive raises my suspicions. More research as well as more solutions to this problem should be investigated, especially by those not destined to benefit from it.

Comment from Karen Fischer, (7/21/2011, 2:53 PM)

Just checked the link to the report. Takes you to Kimberly Clark website, and "Wypall" wipes advertisement.

Comment from Robert Ikenberry, (7/21/2011, 3:17 PM)

This study raises an interesting potential issue, but in my opinion should be taken with substantial skepticism until peer reviewed and independently verified. I read the underlying white paper and spoke to the principle investigator and have the following comments: The white paper is not peer reviewed or published at this time. The research was industry sponsored by a stakeholder and the graphics and related website are Kimberly Clark's spin on the research, not necessarily Gradient's work product. The transfer efficiencies from cloth to hand are based on pesticides (primarily on carpet) and don't necessarily relate to metals. No independent tests or studies were done on actual transfers from cloth to skin, only the lab metal analysis is original. No consideration was given to the possibility that metal particles are trapped in the cloth fibers, and if not dislodged by laundering, may also not be dislodged by handling. In my opinion, this study raises an interesting point, but should not be considered relevant until duplicated and actual transfer risks are physically measured. I suspect that the presumed transfers/ingestion by workers are grossly overstated by the assumptions made by the authors and while this is beneficial marketing for selling paper towels, it is not yet good science.

Comment from jesse chasteen, (7/21/2011, 7:32 PM)

Who was it that studied asbestos so closely? A clue, their product is pink...

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (7/22/2011, 8:31 AM)

Robert, nice job. A more direct method of confirmation would be to perform blood lead level testing on workers who do not have direct lead exposure in their workplace (other than the towels) but share a pool of towels known to be contaminated with lead.

Comment from Guy Rothrock, (7/22/2011, 3:11 PM)

Interesting study question. As I read the website article, the question came to mind, that the towels have been professionally laundered and the metals were not removed, how can the metals then be easily transferred by hand contact later? This is just as Robert noted before me. What is the quantity of towel to hand transfer?. This is an essential question the authors should have asked and answered in their "study". It seems statistics and assumptions will prove anything and nothing at the same time.

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