Food Processing Sanitation Experts

The Scary Truth about Rags and Towels

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Editor’s note: This summary article was extracted from an article title “Throwing in the towel to invisible hazards” written by Kim MacDougall and originally appeared in Cleaning & Maintenance Magazine.

One of the key issues that a company endures is workplace safety. Employees use products daily that contain hazards, without even knowing it. One item that workers use throughout the day is laundered shop towels. These may have potential long-term health risks on the employees using them.

Laundered shop towels are rented out to a number of different types of workplaces. Their primary use is for cleaning and different types of maintenance tasks. When the towels arrive to the facility, they are perceived as “clean.” After the facility is done with the towels, they are collected from all the different facilities. They are then potentially washed together and redistributed.

Even though theses towels are thought to be clean, it is in fact the opposite. Gradient, an environmental consulting firm, has discovered that after laundering theses towels have intense levels of metal contamination on them. The study showed that on every single towel tested they each contained 18 different types of metal residue at the minimum. This is can ultimately result in long term health risks for the employees that use them.

The Gradient study concluded that these so called clean towels contain metal residues. The residues can be transferred to the user’s hands. Then they work towards the face and mouth, ultimately causing ingestion hazards. The average human touches their face around 16 times an hour. This ultimately increases the risk of potential hazards entering their body. The issue is that the workers cannot physically identify heavy metal contaminations upon these towels. This causes them to ingest metal toxics, without even knowing it. Exposures to high levels of metal contamination can result in health issues such as cancer and reproduction problems.
The gradient study compared the metal exposure on the towels against federal and state toxicity limits. The firm took 26 samples of laundered shop towels from various U.S. and Canadian companies. They tested the towels for 29 different metals. They then compared the results of the towels the safety standards. The results were quite shocking.

The first issue the study found was that the exposure to metal from theses towels have the potential to exceed the levels allowed in drinking water set forth by the EPA’s Safe Water Drinking Act. The towels can be exposed to metals such as lead, chromium, cadmium and anatomy surpassing the maximum contamination or action levels (MCL and AL) for drinkable water. It is said that the daily intake of lead may be 21 times higher than the action level for lead, because of these shop towels.

Another issue at hand is that these towels are exceeding toxicology limits set forth by agencies like the EPA and ATSDR. It is predicted that laundered towels surpass the toxicity criterion for metals such as lead, cadmium, cobalt, beryllium, and copper by 100 times.

Harris interactive conducted an online survey to see how aware workers were of heavy metals in these towels. The survey had some intriguing results. 78 percent of the people believed that if the towels are not completely 100% safe, then they should be banned. Also, 9 out of every ten workers would take greater safety precautions if the risk were known to them. It was also found that 54 percent of the people said co-workers take the towels home. Also, an additional 18 percent use the towels for personal hygiene or even first aid.

So now that all of the risk are known about these towels, what are some alternative choice of actions? One alternative is to get disposable towels. They absorb more, provide softness, maintains strength and durability, and provide a safe and clean alternative.

If one must use shop towels there are some precautionary measures you should take. First, DO NOT wipe hands, face or mouth with towels. In order to avoid this use gloves when handling towels. Secondly, make sure to always clean your hands with soap and water before eating or touching your facial region. Thirdly, make sure that you wash your hands and face prior to leaving working. This will decrease the chances of bringing a heavy metal residues to your home. Lastly, make sure you DO NOT take home the towels and wash them with your other clothes. This can cause cross contamination. Leave the towels at work.

As an industry/facility leader in order to ensure the best working conditions it is important to address these issues at hand. This is something that a lot places lack, and they need to do a better job at it. By addressing these issues and taking the proper precautions laid forth, you will be able to promote safe and healthy working environments within your company.

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