The traditional solvent parts washer– a fixture in most plants– presents often unrecognized legal liability, health and environmental risks that would terrify most plant managers. New technology offers a way to defuse the threat.
By Francis Marks, President, ChemFree Corporation, Norcross, Georgia
For generations you could find the solvent parts washer wherever there were parts to clean and machinery to maintain. It did the job it was supposed to do and nobody thought much about it. Today, the humble parts washer is on the minds of people far removed from day to day plant maintenance and operations. It’s a subject of growing concern for human resources people, risk managers, environmental compliance officers and legal council.
Deteriorating air quality, growing EPA oversight, increasing health concerns and a general litigiousness have focused scrutiny on industrial solvents like those found in the traditional parts washer.
A growing number of medical studies have uncovered serious and unsuspected health consequences of solvent exposure—exposure most sever in activities like parts cleaning that place the worker in direct contact with the solvent, often many times a day and in poorly ventilated work spaces.
The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, reports that workers exposed to even moderate amounts of airborne or skin-absorbed solvent may be affected by chronic fatigue, depression, confusion, attention deficit, memory loss, tingling and numbness in extremities, loss of smell, muscle weakness, loss of memory and irritability. Long term exposure was found to produce irreversible symptoms including birth defects, cognitive and behavioral changes, impotence, skin hyper sensitivity and even cancer.
This growing proof of the health risks of solvent exposure has spawned a number of lawsuits holding corporations liable for employees’ and citizens’ solvent-related health problems. The best selling book, A Civil Action, and the movie of the same name recount one such case. This case, generally considered a victory for the defendants, will cost the corporations involved well into nine figures.
Lockheed Martin was sued by a group of employees for the health consequences of solvent exposure. The initial jury award was nine figures.
While jury awards in some cases can be astronomical, the growing frequency of such litigation is even more troubling. It’s a virtual certainty that, in the next few months, some manager reading these words will face a lawsuit relating to solvent exposure.
Aside from the health and legal risks of cleaning parts with solvent, fire remains an ever-present danger even in companies with a commitment to the highest safety standards. Georgia Power Company, a division of The Southern Company, the country’s largest power generator, recently experienced a devastating explosion and fire at an Atlanta area generating plant that left three dead and four seriously injured. Accident investigators traced the explosion to the use of solvent for cleaning machinery parts. The victims were veteran employees with exemplary safety records performing routine maintenance just as they had done many times before.
The expense of operating a solvent parts washer continues to climb. The EPA considers the solvent used in parts washers to be a hazardous waste and imposes a cradle-to-grave responsibility on the solvent user. The
user faces the need to train employees in proper hazardous waste handling. This additional personnel cost, the cost of hazardous material storage and the mandate to haul and dispose of old solvent and maintain scrupulous records every step of the way has inflated the operating cost of what was once a very simple, low-cost machine.
The government is coming down hard on the solvent parts washer. The EPA has established strict air quality standards and U.S. Department of Transportation funding is linked to compliance. Atlanta has seen its federal highway funding suspended and a growing number of cities like LA, San Francisco, Chicago and St. Louis face suspension of federal funds unless their air quality is brought into compliance. Some jurisdictions have imposed heavy fines or a virtual ban on solvent parts washers. More are sure to follow.
The traditional solvent parts washer is trouble waiting to happen, and the longer it remains on the shop floor, the greater the potential risks to the environment, to employees and to the bottom line.
There are abundant economic, legal, environmental and moral reasons that the solvent parts washer should go the way of leaded gas. However, more than a million of these potentially deadly machines remain in use across the country because plant and shop managers don’t fully appreciate the risks they represent or understand the new alternatives to solvent cleaning.
Early water-based alternatives to solvent parts washers used a citrus or alkaline cleaning fluid. They were usually highly caustic, uncomfortable for the user and didn’t clean very well. What’s more, they had to be skimmed regularly and the skimmed oil had to be treated as hazardous waste—hauled, documented and disposed of much like solvent. These early water-based parts washers offered some advantages over solvent but brought their own set of hassles and costs.
The breakthrough in water-based parts cleaning occurred when microbiology and chemistry were brought to bear on the problem. Scientists had long known that certain microbes found in nature could digest oil into water vapor and carbon dioxide. They called this process ‘bioremediation’—the use of living organisms to turn hazardous materials into harmless components. It was this bioremediation technology that proved so effective in cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound.
Chemists and engineers put these findings to work in an industrial setting by creating a parts washer that combines a powerful cleaning fluid with bioremediating microbes. The fluid lifts grease and dirt from the part and flushes it into a reservoir where benign microbes, thriving in an especially congenial environment, digest the grease. The components, carbon dioxide and water, evaporate into the air like fizz from a soda pop.
Early bioremediating parts washers had their shortcomings. Some lubricants were difficult to clean and the bioremediating process sometimes produced a barnyard odor. The microbes themselves were often vulnerable to temperature swings. But things have changed.
Today’s state-of-the-art bioremediating parts washer is a mature technology– a patented closed-loop system that requires little maintenance. Its cleaning efficiency is comparable to the best solvent parts washers. When used properly, there is nothing to haul or skim. The fluid remains at peak efficiency and need never be replaced, just topped up to replace fluid lost to normal evaporation. The latest generation of surfactant fluids can remove even fifth-wheel grease and other lubricants that defy ordinary water-based cleaners. New strains of robust microbes can thrive in a wide range of temperatures. The only maintenance required is the monthly replacement of a filter mat that captures particulates and supplies a fresh colony of microbes. The filter mat may usually be disposed of as ordinary solid waste as you would a paper towel.
Many users of the leading bioremediating parts washer report that the direct cost of operating their new parts washer is actually less than their traditional solvent parts washer—even before factoring in the costs of record-keeping, hauling, disposal and potential liability.
The benefits of a bioremediating parts washer are compelling:
- Fast and effective parts cleaning, even up against tough lubricants.
- Low maintenance and low operating costs.
- User friendly—virtually no odor or skin irritation.
- No health or fire risks.
- No EPA record-keeping.
- No skimming, hazardous waste hauling or disposal.
- No cradle-to-grave legal liability.
- No exposure to EPA fines, penalties or clean up charges.
Comparison of different types of parts washers:
|Parts Washer||System Components||Output||Disposal Requirements|
|Surfactant, microbes,filter, washer.||H20 CO2||No hauling, no manifest, no oil skimming,
no hazardous waste disposal,
solid waste disposal.
|Non-bioremediating water-based supply
|Concentrate, portable water, washer.||Skim oil, gray water.||Oil waste and gray water hauling and manifest.|
|Solvent-based||Solvent, washer||VOC’s hazardous waste||Hazardous waste hauling and hazardous water manifest,
cradle-to-grave liability as per
the Resource Conservation
and Recovery Act (RCRA)
Now, thanks to bioremediation, the parts washer on the shop floor can once again be the simple, easy-to-use, cost-effective machine that does its job with little attention, and hardly a second thought.