Laundered shop towels

Metal residues pose a potential health risk.

April 25, 2012   by Joe Terrett, Editor

Workers handling laundered shop towels may be exposing themselves to metal levels that exceed allowable limits.

Gradient, an environmental and science risk consulting firm in Seattle, Wash., conducted a study on behalf of Kimberly-Clark Professional, a global supplier of paper products and cleaners for industry and consumer markets. The company makes WYPALL Wipers, a disposable shop towel.

An analysis of towels provided by 26 North American manufacturers, 15 of them Canadian, shows plant workers using a typical number of shop towels (12 daily) may be exposed to metals such as lead, chromium, cadmium and antimony at concentrations many times above those allowed by maximum contaminant or action levels.

“Our analysis indicates that shop towel users may unknowingly ingest higher amounts of metals than what is allowed in drinking water,” said Barbara Beck, principal at Gradient. “It’s important for safety managers and plant workers to understand metal contamination levels in laundered shop towels so they can make informed decisions about their use.”

Freshly laundered shop towels were shown to carry metal residues that may transfer to the hand, migrate to the mouth and be ingested at too high a level.

In Canada, exposure to lead in drinking water is limited to 10 parts per billion. In the US, it’s 15 parts per billion. The study shows daily intake from shop towels may be up to 21 times higher than the intake that would be associated with the US lead action level.

Seven metals were found in all the tested towels – antimony, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead and molybdenum.

Here are some of the health effects associated with heavy metals that exceeded toxicity:

  • Beryllium can cause sensitization, lung and skin disease.
  • Cadmium and cadmium compounds are known to cause cancer as well as kidney, bone and lung cancer.
  • Cobalt exposure at high levels can result in lung and heart effects, dermatitis and liver and kidney effects.
  • Copper when orally ingested may cause nausea, vomiting/diarrhea, liver damage, kidney damage or death.
  • Long term exposure may lead to result in severe damage to the blood-forming, nervous, urinary, and reproductive systems.

For study analysis results, visit

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