The dirt on laundered shop towels continues to be mired in controversy. A recent study by the Gradient Corp., shows heavy metals, oils and other contaminants remain on cloth shop towels well after laundering.

The findings of this study, completed in 2011, mimic the results of earlier research conducted in 2003. Scientists revealed three notable findings:

  • Launderable shop towels contain heavy metals after laundering;
Workers use these towels in a way that exposes them to these heavy metals; and
The exposure levels in these towels exceed limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to the research, more than 90 percent of launderable shop towels contained all 29 of the heavy metals the towels were tested for; and 100 percent of the towels contained at least some of the metals examined.

The study then considered the amount of metals in launderable shop towels versus the number of towels the average worker uses in a day to determine the levels of metal exposure. In most cases the amounts of these metals exceeded EPA limits. In fact, lead was 3,600 times EPA limits; Cadmium, 40 times; Cobalt, 17 times; and Beryllium, 10 times the limit.  

While this doesn’t mean workers will use a shop towel and fall ill the next day, Tim Reader, a senior scientist who worked with Gradient on its study, cautions they could become sick over time.

“Heavy metals are stable elements, which means they don’t decompose,” Reader says. “So if you get heavy metals into your body, they will build up over time, which can lead to diseases and illnesses later on.”

The problem arises from cross-contamination during the cleaning process and during use. A central laundering facility may clean towels from 19 to 30 different workplaces throughout the region and all of these towels are laundered together.

“It’s the equivalent of throwing a red T-shirt in with the white laundry,” says Reader. “All of the different heavy metals, oils, greases and other contaminants are being co-mingled in the wash, and redistributed in the towels.”


Converting Customers From Launderable Shop Towels

It’s common for workers to carry the towels around in their back pockets, using them to wipe their hands or their brows, or even as placemats in the breakroom.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for exposure to what’s in the towels,” Reader adds.

Despite these findings, many of today’s workplaces still rely on launderable shop towels. Reader believes this is due to a lack of awareness. Companies have utilized launderable shop towels for many years, and most workers assume the towels coming from the laundry are clean and safe to use.

“The laundered towel industry has been around forever, and they work as intended — they clean tools, workstations and hands,” says Chris Nolan, president, H.T. Berry Company of Canton, Mass. “But what are workers risking by using them or having them laying around their workplace?”

Nolan and other jan/san distributors seek to convert clients to what they view as a safer alternative — disposable shop towels, or wipers. These towels do not contain the contaminants found in their launderable brethren, and are generally stronger, more absorbent and more cost effective.

“Disposable shop towels are a viable option,” says Reader. “Usually they have better performance as far as absorbency. They provide a consistent size every time. They are free of heavy metals and they don’t contain any contaminants.”

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