The impact of cotton dust from the textiles industry on the environment and human health is hardly talked about. The problem associated with cotton dust is serious as it has no resale value. However, there are sustainable ways of tacking the issue, says Vishaka Agarwal.

In India, the textiles industry is its second largest. The apparel and cotton export from India is expected to rise by 10 per cent this year, due to political instability, higher wages and improper workplace condition in other producing countries. Currently, textile exports from India comprise 4.5 per cent of the world market. There are around 1,850 textile units in the India. The textiles industry releases huge volume of textile waste which needs to be recycled in a sustainable manner into the atmosphere.

Considering the rise in pollution in the environment, recycling and reuse of industrial waste is of utmost importance. The textiles industry produces different types of solid, liquid and gaseous waste which need to be treated properly to convert them into useful forms which does not affect the environment.

Aiswarya S and Amsamani S write in 'Recycling Textile Waste - Newer Dimension' that in India, every year the total amount of cotton fibre consumption is 26 lakh tonnes and that of willow dust generated is 2,10,000 tonnes. The problem associated with cotton dust has taken a serious attention as it has no resale value.

The cotton dust generated during the processing of cotton in the textiles industry is produced in tonnes every year. This micro-dust is harmful for the health of workers as inhaling this continuously causes deadly bronchitis diseases. Burning of this cotton dust, on the other hand, releases lot of heat into the atmosphere which is thereby not sustainable for environment, and adds to global warming.

The problem of cotton dust

Cotton dust may be defined as too-short fibre which cannot be converted to any textile application. This micro-dust pollutes the atmosphere, and emits foul odour. Most of it is disposed of by burning, which in turn adds to global warming due to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Decay in water emits obnoxious gases into the atmosphere. Therefore, for sustainable disposal of this hazardous waste, there is a need for a closer look at the alternative solution. As this cotton dust is composed of organic material and generated as waste in large volumes, we need to find ways for its sustainable recycle and reuse.

The cotton dust consists of 50-80 per cent fibre fragments, leaf and husk fragments, 10-25 per cent sand and some water soluble material. The cotton dust has different sizes of particles: breathable dust- below 15mm, micro-dust- 15-50mm, dust- 50-500 mm and trash-above 500mm. The breathable dust of size below 15mm is hazardous for human lungs.


The effect of cotton dust on the health of workers

Cotton dust is generated in various sections of the yarn manufacturing process causes breathing problems to workers. As humans can breathe in particles of particular size and beyond a certain limit of inhalation, the breathing tract and lungs are affected. If the exposure is for a longer period then the workers suffer from diseases associated with the continuous inhalation: Byssinosis or "brown lung "disease which may lead to damage of the respiratory system.

As per OSHA's Air Contaminant Standard, the permissible exposure limits (PEL) are average exposures measured over an eight hour workday. The threshold limit value is 1 mg/m3. From the study, it was found that the concentration of cotton dust ranged from 1.20mg/ m3 in the carding section to 7.1mg/ m3 in the opening section. As this is much above the threshold limit, these textile mill workers often suffer from lung diseases which arise out of blocking of the breathing tracts.

Sustainable conversion of cotton dust

There are a number of ways in which cotton dust can be disposed of sustainably.

  • Biogas production: In his research titled 'Production of Biogas from Willow Dust', RH Balasubramanya states that willow dust contains traces of wax, cellulose, hemicelluloses and lignin. It is found that the substances which have C: N ratios of 25:1 are found to be optimum for biogas production. In willow dust, this ratio is of 30:1 (C: 1 (C: N) and hence is suitable for biogas production.
  • Vermicomposting: Considering the organic nature of cotton dust, with the use of vermicomposting technology and enzyme technology the cotton dust may be converted into bio-compost. Vermicomposting is a technology for converting solid organic waste into highly beneficial and rich compost which can be used as fertiliser to enhance soil fertility. The worms create a home for millions of microorganism that help in reducing the toxicity of waste. This is viewed as the organic, sustainable, and eco-friendly alternative to chemical insecticides and pesticides which cause harmful effect on the health of farmers. Cotton uses approximately 25 per cent of the world's insecticides, due to which large number of farmers die. Therefore, this could be used for organic farming which would also help in reducing dependence on the costly and hazardous chemicals and pesticides.
  • Fuel for boiler: The dust contains traces of wax which when burnt releases energy which can be utilised as fuel for boilers. This would help the industry to save on fuel costs, and also it is the sustainable reuse of the waste which would otherwise release obnoxious smell into the environment and if burnt in air, then increases the carbon dioxide levels of the atmosphere.


Measures for the control of Byssinosis

In order to control the ailment and sometimes death of textile mill workers due to Byssinosis, some corrective measures taken by the textile mill owners would be very helpful. These include:

  • Installation of suction and exhaust fans at regular interval and in appreciable numbers would help reduce the micro-dust moving in air within the facility. It would be sucked out by the fans.
  • Installation of vacuum and suction cleaning devices which should be moved every hour in the operation area of bale opening, carding and combing and fabric cutting section to collect the micro-dust in an organised manner.
  • Providing air filter masks to workers and ensuring that they use the masks.
  • Regular medical checks facility for workers.
  • Storage of the collected cotton dust in a covered enclosed area so that water does not seep into that area, else pungent smell would be released which would pollute the air and affect health of people around.

In order to have a sustainable environment and improve productivity, using organic fertiliser is best solution for taking care of the environment, replacing chemical fertilisers with organic fertilisers would reduce health hazards and deaths of farmers. Also, this cotton waste generated in high volume and converted to useful fuel or manure would help in controlling greenhouse gases that are generated due to burning, and other foul gases.

Also, taking up infrastructural measures and installing exhaust fans and micro-dust sucking devices operated regularly would help in controlling the micro-dust level within the different sections of the industry. Strict regulations should be made by the government for rigorous implementation by industry. And, precautionary measures should be adopted by the industry so that rate of lung diseases occurrence may be reduced and sustainable environment is maintained.