Health Risk Assessment Clears Shop Towels

Posted June 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm

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Contact: Ken Koepper, 703.519.0029, ext. 109;
Health Risk Assessment Clears Shop Towels of Toxicity Claims -7/2/12

An initial health risk assessment of laundered reusable shop towels by the international environmental engineering firm ARCADIS indicates that using such towels creates no health hazard. TRSA is publicizing these findings as well as planning to expand this research and undertake further efforts to highlight these items’ high value to industrial users.

ARCADIS’s risk assessment indicates that metals that remain on shop towels after laundering are not readily transferred to the hands of workers who use shop towels. As such, they create no health hazard, countering flawed speculation to the contrary. TRSA plans to expand the research beyond the initial sample of shop towels from 10 locations to further verify conclusive evidence that these clean reusable products do not harm workers.

ARCADIS measured metal traces in laundered towels and conducted leachability tests using “synthetic sweat” to estimate residual elements that could be freed when towels are used. From this leachate, the firm determined the amounts of each metal a worker might be exposed to based on factors including skin contact and hours worked. The potential noncancerous and cancer hazards associated with such exposures were assessed.

This independent research found either zero detectable risk from the transfer of these metals or a level that would be considered insignificant, even by comparison to health-conservative values established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“Reusable cloth shop towels have been used by millions of workers for more than 100 years with no indications that clean shop towels have any impact on worker health,” stated Joseph Ricci, TRSA president & CEO. “By measuring leachate, and not simply relying on a modeling format, Arcadis realistically portrayed the minuscule amount of metals that shop towel users are exposed to, reaffirming our confidence that there is absolutely no risk to users. We look forward to gathering more independent data using this comprehensive protocol to increase confidence that clean reusable textiles pose no health risks.”

To emphasize these points to industry customers and prospects and improve understanding of the full range of benefits of substituting reusables for disposables, TRSA will expand communications on the safe, green and cost-effective virtues of cloth shop towels. Documenting best practices for laundering and using them is also planned. This will result in new promotional resources for members’ individual use and position them as more responsive to market concerns than companies that don’t support TRSA.

Reusable cloth shop towels remain the wiper of choice for industrial applications due to their absorbency and cost benefits. They satisfy EPA’s “reduce, reuse, recycle” hierarchy for effectively managing materials and waste. They’re not regulated as solid or hazardous waste as long as launderers use TRSA’s voluntary management practices for handling and transporting them. A new federal rule, expected this summer, will codify these techniques.

Compared with disposables, many of which are classified as hazardous waste, reusable cloth shop towels are recognized as the cleaner, greener alternative by users and regulators. While water use is comparable, EPA life cycle research (measuring a product’s natural resources depletion from harvesting its raw material to manufacturing to industrial use to disposal) shows that compared with reusable cloth shop towels, paper wipers consume 13 times more energy; nonwovens, 7 to 12 times more.

TRSA data indicate that for the most difficult cleaning tasks (requiring two or three wipers that must be laundered or disposed after each wiping), paper goods produce 3.8 times more solid waste. The EPA has concluded that due to the larger number of discarded paper and nonwoven wipers and contaminants these products carry, disposables account for more landfill volume than reusables and their filtrate from laundering.

Ricci indicated that the ARCADIS research turns the table on disposables marketers with regard to their product’s impact on human health, as “it has long been recognized that many disposable towel users are out of compliance with solid waste rules. Such wipers containing hazardous wastes may be illegally placed in regular dumpsters with other trash, presenting a health and safety risk to solid waste handlers.” In contrast, a contaminant on a reusable shop towel poses no public threat because filtrate disposal and wastewater discharges are strictly regulated.

The ARCADIS research protocol mirrored a 2011 Gradient Corp. analysis funded and used by disposable wiper marketers to fuel speculation about risks associated with clean reusable shop towels. Like the Gradient research, the ARCADIS study tested shop towels from randomly selected facilities. ARCADIS went significantly further to assess any health risk from reusable towels by conducting leachability tests to more accurately measure any potential transfer of metals that could pose a health risk.