Assist. Prof. of Public Health
March 2009 represents a milestone in the history of the health and safety of workers in Turkey. Following a determined struggle by a civil movement, the “Denim Sandblasting Workers’ Solidarity Committee” and with significant public support having been generated, the Ministry of Health issued a circular on March 27th, which prohibited every kind of sandblasting technique, but “primarily those applied to denim clothing and fabrics”. This was a success worthy of celebration, because from then on textile workers would no longer keep developing silicosis, just to allow fashion designers and global brands to sell “new jeans that look like old ones”.
Silicosis is an occupational disease with no specific treatment. At best, the tissue damage caused to the lung is irreversible, at worst the disease continues to progress, so that eventually the diseased worker is in need of outside ventilator support and/or dies. The joy over the success achieved was bittersweet, because up to the year 2009 over 1,500 people, i.e. former sandblasting workers, were registered as diseased and nearly 60 workers, the majority aged in their early thirties, had lost their lives. Doctors feared that thousands of other workers might end up diagnosed with silicosis in the years to follow.
In 2011, new legal regulations were established in order to compensate partially for these workers’ employment and financial losses. Workers who applied within three months following this legal enactment were entitled to a “disability” pension, even though it was an indisputable fact that what these people were suffering from was an occupational disease. In order to qualify to receive this pension it was necessary not to miss the three months’ deadline. Currently, whilst approximately 1000 workers and their families do have a regular income as a result of this law, those who applied too late remain without cover. Although the government classifies occupational disease as a handicap, no such handicap was taken into consideration once the application period had ended.
The struggle to achieve the prohibition of sandblasting in the textile sector focuses attention on several issues. When the political situation is favourable, civil movements can become prominent actors in changing peoples’ lives. Dangerous practices can be subjected to regulations/measures; moreover they can be outlawed completely. On the other hand, Capital will not be slow to get repositioned according to whatever new circumstance arises. Repositioning can sometimes entail setting up pressure groups or operating various bribery schemes aiming to reduce the legislative pressure or lift the ban entirely. Sometimes the physical location can be changed and the production line relocated to another place where workers’ rights are less protected. A search for new alternatives to the active substance (in this case sand) can also occur. In the case of denim sandblasting, all three options have been attempted. When influential lobby groups and innovative bribery techniques could not overpower the national ban, local or global denim brands resorted to moving their operations to countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, and particularly Bangladesh. Now, it is the lives of Bangladeshi or Pakistani workers (or workers from countries where there is no ban, and cheap labour stimulates a thirst for profits), instead of those of Turkish workers, that are sacrificed in gloomy “sand chambers”, where workers cannot even see their hands in front of their faces.
In the meantime, as might be expected, Capital located in Turkey has not stood idle. It has lost a technique which is cheapest, fastest, and requires the least investment and least skilled labour, yet still adds the greatest value to a product. It is a major loss, hence a second choice has to be found. Has anybody learned anything from what happened and those that died? No. Workers’ health is still not a priority. The priority is on making sure that consumers are convinced and ready to buy new jeans that look as if they have worn out naturally, when in fact an artificial technique has been used.
Can sandblasting be replaced?
Sandblasting used to have tremendous advantages for a brand. First of all, the initial investment cost was close to zero; some sand from Turkey’s plentiful seas, a sand storage tank, a compressor, a hosepipe to connect the compressor to the tank, and several unskilled workers hired according to production capacity, were all the equipment that was required. Just a few days sufficed for a worker to learn the basic job, and to become a skilled worker a matter of months was enough. Supposing that the business of the sub-contracted firm were not solely sandblasting, it would have been enough just to arrange an additional building next to the “washing” unit. Consequently, neither hand sanding, nor lasering, nor ozone bleaching, nor any other comparable technique could compete with sandblasting in terms of ease, production rate, cost and profitability.
Denim bleached by way of sandblasting was also very advantageous for the consumer. First of all, every finished product looked as if it were naturally worn. It had a kind of “vintage” feel. Moreover, the products carried no health risks for the consumer. There was no sand residue left behind on the jeans, since the jeans were washed as the last stage in the procedure. So, the popularity of these products increased and demand for them grew.
Capital was in a hurry to come up with new alternatives when this technique, which had been proven to result in fast production and yield a high profit despite the low cost of investment, was banned.
It was possible to do the same job with a hand sander, but even though it was as cheap as sandblasting in terms of needing only unskilled labour, the hand sanding method was deficient with regard to output. As for workers’ health, it carried no grave health risks provided precautions were taken against airborne fabric and paint dust. However, besides being tiresome work, it was far from satisfactory in terms of production quantity. As for the laser technique, the initial investment cost was high and output was too limited. Instead of resulting in a naturally worn out look, the wear looked artificial created. Techniques involving the use of nanotechnology, enzymes, dyes and ozone bleaching all called for additional procedures, technological knowledge and skill. Also, these methods were not common. Finally, grinding or washing denim pieces together with natural stones such as pumice, or chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl), was in any case an outdated technique because it created a uniform colour over the entire surface of the product, leaving no possibility of varying the wear in different areas in a creative way.
All of this meant a bleak picture for Capital, but, with the substitution of a chemical called potassium permanganate, smiles began to appear again.
Potassium Permanganate: A well-known chemical with unknown hazards
We are actually quite familiar with the chemical potassium permanganate (KMnO4). It has been used for a long time in many sectors, including the textile sector. In the denim bleaching procedure the chemical is applied to the denim product with a brush or a spray gun. It does not give as natural-looking a result as sandblasting does, but it provides a similar bleached/worn-out effect. It is an easy-to-use and relatively cheap chemical, and usage does not require the worker to be skilled. Therefore it is an alternative Capital can adopt without creating undue anxiety. This technique was in use even when sandblasting was still legal and common. However, with the prohibition of sandblasting, it has rapidly approached being the most popular method of bleaching.
From a consumer standpoint, it was already known that denim products bleached with potassium permanganate were not as “innocuous” as those bleached with sandblasting. Chemical waste remaining on the surface after the fabric has been washed can irritate the skin and cause allergic reactions. However, there is no expectation of a serious health risk.
As for the worker who carries out the procedure, the situation is not so clear. The tragic problems sandblasting has caused with regard to occupational lung diseases and the increase in the frequency of use of potassium permanganate as a substitute for sandblasting, has led scientists involved with occupational health and safety to examine this chemical more carefully. Until a few years ago, it was thought that it would be sufficient for the worker to wear personal protective equipment in order to protect the mouth and nose from the strong smell and dense fumes, and the hands and eyes from an allergic reaction. It was believed that this would prevent workers from developing occupational asthma, reactive airway dysfunction syndrome (RADS), and eye and skin reactions (contact dermatitis, allergic reactions, acne, etc.). The situation is no longer so simple.
Risk: where are we headed?
Potassium permanganate is a heavy metal salt and an oxidative agent, and its irritant effect has been recognised for many years. The unacceptable working conditions and deaths of young workers caused by sandblasting were impossible to discount, but in the midst of the struggle for the prohibition of sandblasting, the use of this chemical in the textile sector had been ignored. Since it was thought to be more “innocuous”, problems were not adequately addressed. Academic interest was also limited to a few studies researching the potential effects on health within a particular region.
However, in European Union countries currently, potassium permanganate is being re-evaluated with regard to its risks to health and the environment. Evidence points to the likelihood that in the year 2018 this chemical will be put in a different hazard grouping, being reclassified in the categories of mutagenic (i.e. any agent or substance that can cause genetic mutation) and reprotoxic (i.e. having a toxic effect on the process of reproduction) chemicals. In short, it is very likely that in 2018 the European Chemical Agency will reclassify potassium permanganate as a category one carcinogen with regard to its effects on health.
Clearly, merely walking in jeans will not wear the jeans out until after a considerable period. And eroding denim by one method or another will mean eroding the lives of textile workers. Consumers will continue to call the shots, and the appetites of the fashion leaders will be insatiable. It is clear what needs to be done. Since the usage of chemicals is so cheap and frequent, increasing the volume of studies undertaken and providing evidence from Turkey, too, will facilitate a re-evaluation process. For this purpose, we encourage our esteemed professors and their colleagues to question the safety of potassium permanganate more frequently. The existence of scientific studies will strengthen our cause and increase our capacity to intervene. This subject should be viewed as an option for a Masters degree in Public Health and Chest Diseases, and PhD candidates and sub-branch assistants should consider it a possibility for their research and thesis. Research outcomes should be shared with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Labour and international organizations such as the European Chemical Agency.
We can prevent, through our collective efforts and before it is too late, the permanent diseases and deaths that may occur because of this chemical. We can multiply our strength and our voices and succeed together.
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