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Report drives attention to risks of potassium permanganate exposure in the denim industry

By Marjorie van Elven


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Ever wondered how denim manufacturers make their jeans achieve that vintage, worn look? Sandblasting is the most common way to do that, but the procedure is quite dangerous, as workers may inhale the sand particles. When the silica present in the sand builds up in the lungs and breathing passages, workers develop a disease called silicosis, which makes it hard to breathe and can cause long-term lung damage.

Many factories around the world are either replacing or combining sandblasting with potassium permanganate (PP), a substance which produces a light brown color when applied to denim. But it isn’t any safer to workers, according to a report by the Clean Clothes Campaign, the first one to delve into the issue of PP exposure, either by inhalation or dermal contact. CCC’s goal is to inspire further research by medical professionals and encourage legislators to regulate the working conditions of denim bleaching workers.

The report is based on interviews with denim bleaching workers in Turkey, a country where sandblasting was banned in 2009. Since the prohibition, most brands and subcontractors have replaced sandblasting with PP rather than laser etching because of its higher initial investment costs and the final effect, often considered too uniform. Usually, PP is applied to denim with a spray gun or a brush, but some factories in Turkey are using automated machines as well.

The recommended airborne exposure limit to PP in the United States is 0.03mg/m3 averaged over an 8-hour work shift. The European Chemicals Agency classifies PP as a “substance of very high concern”, but currently there is no short-term limit value for the EU. According to CCC, most denim bleachers in Turkey work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week -- and they often don’t wear a mask.

“Believe me, after a certain point it [the mask] begins to bother… Most people don’t wear one, me neither, I won’t lie,” says one of the workers interviewed for the report. When masks are worn, they’re usually the wrong kind: most masks handed out in the Turkish textile sector are dust masks reminiscent of the sandblasting days, but they do not protect against gaseous chemicals circulating in the air.

Due to the low costs of establishing a denim bleaching facility, this work is mostly carried out by subcontractors, which aggravates the safety problem. Most denim bleaching in Turkey takes place in informal or illegal working spaces, where workers are often paid less than minimum wage, CCC claims.

“We don’t have much inspection here. Because there is no corporate identity, we don’t have much of it here, but in other places I went to, there was inspection every two days, every three days, once a week,” said a 28 year-old worker as quoted in the report. “Maybe you will say, ‘this work is deadly’, but if I didn’t have a job I would maybe die in even worse conditions. I am okay for now”, says another interviewee.

Clean Clothes Campaign