Environmental Research Firm Releases Shop Towel Study
Report Indicates Possible Toxin Exposure
Gradient Corp., an environmental and risk science consulting firm, has recently released a study, "Evaluation of Potential Exposure to Metals in Laundered Shop Towels." Kimberly-Clark Corp. funded the study.
Of interest to auto repairers is information related to the use of towels and the exposure to chemicals in the samples from auto repair shops. Researchers collected towels from 26 companies in the United States and Canada. Four of the shops were auto repair facilities; two in Canada, one in Texas and one in Missouri. Other industry sectors included aviation, construction material manufacturing, electronics, food/beverage packaging, heavy equipment manufacturing, medical device manufacturing, metal manufacturing, military, packaging, painting, printing, pump manufacturing, retail and transportation.
The study found that 12 towels were used daily, on average, by each employee. On the higher end, 26 towels were used daily by employees.
The report found that towels, even after they have been washed, can cause exposure to metals, oil and grease as they can easily be ingested orally through transfer from the towel to hands to the mouth. The report indicates that over time, toxins can accumulate in the body, possibly leading to cancer or tissue and organ damage.
Gradient researchers reported their overall conclusions as follows:
• Laundered shop towels contain a wide variety of heavy metals; 26 different metals were found on more than 90 percent of the towels.
• Metals on the shop towels can get into hands, then be inadvertently transferred to the mouth and swallowed.
• Exposure to metals in shop towels may exceed agency health-based criteria.
• The number of compounds with health-based criteria is excessively higher in the 2011 evaluation than in the 2003 assessment due to a number of factors including higher detected concentrations and greater towel usage.
In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to modify the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) hazardous waste regulations for management of solvent-contaminated industrial wipes. The agency proposed to conditionally exclude wipes that are disposed of from the definition of hazardous waste and to conditionally exclude laundered wipes from the definition of solid waste.
The EPA proposed a rule that year to allow disposable solvent-contaminated wipes and laundry sludge created from the washing of reusable wipes to be disposed of at municipal solid waste landfills (MSWLFs). The proposal was very broad, and did not specify the requirements of the MSWLFs that could accept the disposable items. In 2009, the EPA issued an edited risk assessment of the wipes rule, which demonstrated that multiple solvents on used wipes may pose a risk if disposed of in basic unlined landfills.
Following the EPA's October 2009 risk assessment of disposal of used industrial wipes in unlined landfills, the agency proposed two new approaches to the issue. The first would permit solvents that pose no environmental risk in any unlined MSWLF. The second option would require all solvent-contaminated wipes to be delivered to landfills with greater prescriptive requirements such as the ones defined in subtitle D of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act.
The Gradient Corp.'s study stated, "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 particles, invisible to the eye. Workers who touch towels with their hands may unknowingly transfer these metals from their hands to their mouths. Ingestion of metals from hand-to-mouth transfer is an important exposure route for metals, as recognized by multiple federal agencies including the EPA, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Gradient's analysis 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."
The Automotive Service Association met with Gradient Corp. and Kimberly-Clark representatives to discuss the study. ASA also invited the researchers to present their findings at Automotive Service and Repair Week (ASRW) in Orlando, Fla., next month. Many of our member shops use reusable towels and it is important for shops to have the Gradient Corp.'s information and have an opportunity to ask questions of the researchers related to the study.
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