Concern over health impact of chemical in denim bleaching

August 07, 2019 - United Kingdom

UK-based Labour Behind the Label, which campaigns for workers' rights, is supporting global concerns over the impact of potassium permanganate on workers in the Turkish denim industry. A study released recently by the Turkish Clean Clothes Campaign revealed workers using it in spray form to create the faded look were suffering skin and respiratory problems.

Abdulhalim Demir, a former Turkish denim worker who suffered lung problems, conducted the initial study.

Potassium permanganate is now used in 90 per cent of processes to create the bleached look in denim products sold across high streets. Its use became widespread after sandblasting–the former technique used to fade denim–was shown to cause lung disease silicosis. The chemical is now applied to jeans and jackets by workers with spray guns in confined workshop spaces, often without appropriate protective equipment.

The chemical is classified as ‘dangerous’ by the European Chemical Agency and is said to affect the lungs if inhaled repeatedly, resulting in symptoms similar to bronchitis and pneumonia. Animal testing has also shown that repeated exposure to the substance causes possible toxicity to human reproduction or development.

Anna Bryher from Labour Behind the Label said: “This worrying report indicates the need for further investigation. Workers were shown to have lost their lives in the Turkish denim industry through dust inhalation 10 years ago. To replace this process with a deadly chemical and continue the risk of thousands of workers inhaling toxic substances seems incomprehensible. Regulation and action are needed to protect the people who make our clothes.”

Workers were shown to be provided with ineffectual dust masks rather than gas masks in their workplaces, but even then, equipment was rarely used, according to a press release from Labour Behind the Label.

Researchers gathered photos of skin irritation problems suffered by workers taking part in the process.

The denim bleaching workers also reported long hours, with a standard 12 hour day, six days a week. Most workers said they didn’t receive overtime until they had clocked up 72 hours of work, although local labour law says this should be paid after 45 hours. Workers reported monthly wages of 2,000-3,000 Turkish Lira (£280-£420 a month), which is about a third of the value of a living wage needed to support a family in Turkey.

Researchers are also calling on legislators to investigate legal regulation for potassium permanganate usage in the textile industry in Turkey. (DS)