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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.

Guest:


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  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    How does this balance with the environmental costs of manufacturing and disposing of rags?

  • Shaun_mcauliffe

    Approximately one decade ago one of the industrial cleaning units at Coyne’s New Bedford facility exploded and ended up in the adjacent river. The attendant survived.

    As a recovering environmental consultant, these businesses were always considered a high environmental and financial risk.

  • Johnold

    I work for a corporation that makes machines
    specifically to handle shop rags. The machine is designed using explosion proof
    equipment. The machine vaporizes all the solvents with steam and distills them
    to a liquid, which can then be recycled. If the process is run correctly there
    should be no residual smell on the rags which means all the solvents have correctly
    been vaporized. It should be noted that different solvents vaporize at different
    temperatures. Finally the rags are washed and extracted. The problem is that we
    have no control on where the machines are placed and how they are used. The
    laundry personnel are instructed on how to properly use the machines properly when
    they are installed. I think short cuts are taken to increase production and so
    not using the machines as they were intended. Another problem is that some of
    the Laundries customers use the rags to soak up unwanted solvents so making the
    problem worse. OSHA or the EPA should monitor these machines like
    they do with water discharges to see that they are running in compliance with
    the regulations.

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