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Monday, November 26, 2012

When Washing Rags Creates Toxic Emissions

The shop towels used by mechanics to mop up spilled oil can release toxic chemicals into the air when laundered. (Reed Saxon/AP)

If you think your laundry is dirty, consider the many shops and garages that use shop towels – absorbent, reusable cloths for wiping oil, solvents and chemicals off machines.

The shop towels are eventually carted off to industrial laundries, which clean them. In that process, toxic chemicals – including carcinogens – are released, and could be inhaled.

Environmental regulators in Connecticut found emissions from these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) so bad at one laundry, they stopped the facility from cleaning them.

Science journalist Barbara Moran, who wrote about the issue for the Connecticut Health I-Team, told Here & Now that environmental regulators admitted to her they had missed this problem.

“It’s kind of flown under the radar,” Moran said. “Even when I first heard about this story, I was like, ‘wait air emissions?’ I don’t even understand how this could be happening because laundries, when they’re targeted, are usually targeted for water discharge, water emission issues.”

The environmental consulting firm Gradient has conducted research on shop towels, and found they can also put workers at risk, since they still contain metals such as lead, even after laundering.

Graphic created by Kimberly-Clark Professional.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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