Of all the potential health risks found in a maintenance facility, a mechanic probably devotes the least concern to the ubiquitous cloth shop towel–yet it has become the focal point of controversy. The question is whether or not a clean, reusable cloth shop towel contains hazardous residues that can be transferred to the mechanic.
While the $463 million shop-towel industry serves more auto repair stations than aviation maintenance facilities, the number of shop towels used at each MRO facility is significantly higher, making aviation one of the heaviest users overall, according to Kevin Schwalb, director of government relations for the Textile Rental Services Association (TRSA) of Alexandria, Va.
Schwalb asserts that studies funded by proponents of disposable shop towels used flawed research to conclude that clean, reusable cloth shop towels present a health hazard to mechanics.
“They used a questionable research model to determine exposure to the minute amount of elements on a clean shop towel,” Schwalb told AIN. While he does not dispute that there are trace elements on a clean shop towel, he says research has shown they pose no health risk.
“Our industry study is an actual health assessment using leachate analysis, which uses synthetic sweat to determine what, if anything, will actually come off the towel. We used the same research protocol as the disposables research project and tested towels from ten facilities.
“Our project was independent research conducted by the international environmental engineering firm Arcadis. It found either zero detectable risk from the transfer of the metals or a level that would be considered insignificant even by comparison to health-conservative values established by EPA,” Schwalb said.
According to Schwalb, a standard cloth shop towel is taken away by the laundry, goes into a washing machine, then undergoes an internal treatment as required by the laundry’s discharge permit. The water is then discharged to the sewer for further treatment by the sewer system.
“The government likes that system better than putting a soiled piece of paper in a landfill. For the most part, regulations have favored the laundering process because it is more controlled. The paper towel user will throw the disposable towel wherever he feels like throwing it, whereas the reusable shop towel is handled in an environmentally friendly fashion,” Schwalb said.
“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,” said TRSA president and CEO Joseph Ricci. “By measuring leachate, and not simply relying on a modeling format, Arcadis realistically portrayed the minuscule amounts of metals that shop-towel users are exposed to, reaffirming our confidence 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.” The TRSA plans to expand the research beyond the initial sample of shop towels by doubling the number of locations tested to 20.