Throw In The Towel On Contamination

I'm sort of a germaphobe. I get grossed out if I have to touch the door handle of a public restroom, I am leery of Laundromats and can't stand when hand towels are damp – that just means I have re-wash my hands and let them air dry. It's very rare that I ever encounter a clean, dry towel. But apparently that isn't the sign of fresh and clean. 

A recent study found that "clean" shop towels aren't really so clean after all. High levels of heavy metals were found on supposedly clean towels, exposing workers to hidden risks and potential health problems. (I realize shop towels and bathroom towels aren't the same, but think about what lurks on those – gag!)

The study, “Evaluation of Potential Exposure to Metals in Laundered Shop Towels," was done by Gradient, an environmental and risk science consulting firm. It was commissioned by and sent to me via Kimberly-Clark Professional, a provider of paper products including disposable towels. (I always want to fully disclose the source to put things into perspective -- not that it makes the study less credible.)

The study concludes that, even after commercial laundering, shop towels studied retain elevated levels of metals.

“Workers using just one or two shop towels a day may be exposed to elevated levels of heavy metals, compared to health-based exposure guidelines,” said Barbara Beck, Ph.D., DABT, principal at Gradient. “Without knowing it, manufacturing workers may be ingesting certain heavy metals at elevated levels from this unexpected source. For some of these metals, the amounts ingested may be greater than allowed in drinking water on a daily basis. Because towels are used and then laundered multiple times and are often delivered to different companies each time, workers may even be exposed to metals that do not otherwise exist in their work environment.”

Researchers analyzed data from laundered shop towels submitted by 26 North American companies across various manufacturing industries. The towels were submitted to an independent lab for testing. Gradient found significantly higher levels of contamination than in the similarly designed 2003 study. The heavy metals in question include: antimony, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, and molybdenum.

If you'd like more detailed information, there is a fairly robust white paper on the topic. You can download and read the 22-page report at your leisure. You can thank me later then next time you go to wipe your face with a shop towel and think twice. . . just don't send me the bill for your OCD therapy.

Traci Purdum
Senior Digital Editor