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TRSA Refutes Findings of Shop Towel Metals

Read Schwalb’s statement below and click here to download a PDF for print.

TRSA learned July 8 that the Association of the Nonwovens Industry (INDA) had updated its 2003 analysis of alleged trace metal content on clean laundered shop towels and that its findings would be released three days later. Having successfully refuted the science behind such claims nearly 10 years earlier, TRSA viewed the latest report with the same critical eye. Government Affairs Director Kevin Schwalb immediately prepared a statement discrediting the analysis (text below) that TRSA distributed to media to provide balance in the subsequent reports that “broke” INDA’s story.

The Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (companies that would directly profit from diminished use of reusable textiles) recently contracted with Gradient Corp. for an “Evaluation of Potential Exposure to Metals in Laundered Shop Towels” having done the same in 2003. Workers and employers using reusable shop towels found the results biased and groundless in 2003 and the results have not impacted the use of shop towels. We can only come to the same conclusion as users of shop towels: the research is as profit-driven and baseless today as it was nearly a decade ago.

An impartial third-party peer review could judge this analysis; for now, anyone would have strong reason to be concerned about the validity of its findings.

The research was not conducted, commissioned or reviewed by a non-biased third-party, a government agency such as the EPA or the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health nor any organization seeking to protect public health. It was contracted by an organization with substantial economic interest in replacing shop towels with disposable wipers. The study is nothing more than an effort to accumulate data that creates the impression that such laundered, reusable towels 1) contain trace amounts of metals and 2) that if ingested  present health risks. Even a cursory examination of the report leads a reader to conclude that the study has accomplished neither mission.

In regards to employee safety, hundreds of millions of shop towels have been used by millions of employees for more than 100 years and we have never heard of any health issues related to their use.  During that same time, no federal, state of local agency has found shop towels to be toxic or dangerous.  In fact, the industrial laundering processes and formulas used to clean reusable towels (chemicals, water temperature, agitation) are engineered specifically to maximize cleanliness and minimize environmental impact.  Any materials including residual metals still on towels after laundering would have to be significantly bound to the fibers, making any transfer from towel to hands or mouth virtually impossible.  In addition, shop towels are used by trained professional that understand the proper use and treatment.

The study does not provide any evidence that any residual materials have ever been transferred to a human or ingested. This research is not a study of human health effects nor did it measure contact or ingestion of any chemicals. It falsely assumes without substantiation that towel residuals “could” be easily transferred to a worker’s hands or lips and “may” be ingested.

Finally, the researchers state that there are “no standard methodologies for evaluating exposure to metals in laundered shop towels.”  They rely on previously developed and refuted 2003 research.

As far as the validity of the residual levels detected (failed study objective #1), the study’s sample size is insufficient – there is not enough data to characterize accurately the concentration of metals in either clean or soiled shop towels.  The extremely limited number of “soiled” shop towels (10) used for the study cannot come close to a meaningful representation of the millions of reusable shop towels used every day in industrial settings worldwide.

TRSA members are confident that cloth reusable towels are safe and irreplaceable in the vast majority of functions in which they are currently used, particularly those involving industrial processes. Customers obviously agree, as the vast majority continues to use reusable shop towels.  A thick cloth towel is more absorbent and therefore more effective than a disposable wiper, thereby providing superior protection of the towel user’s hand. Furthermore, cloth shop towel use reflects EPA’s sustainability formula of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Research shows that four disposable towels typically need to be required for the same job creating four to 10 times the amount of solid waste.

Naturally TRSA is concerned that this study obfuscates the true value of shop towels to employers and end users that reusable towels are the preferred, safe and sustainable alternative to disposable products.

TRSA has an established, cooperative relationship with the EPA and government agencies through our LaundryESP program. Our members continuously work to ensure that our laundering process are the most “green”, sustainable choice while disposable manufacturers prefer to fill already overloaded landfills or worse have their products incinerated distributing any toxics into the air we breathe.