Sandblaster jeans are a health hazard

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Lung diseases from killer jeans

Jeans made with sandblasters are an acute danger to the health of workers. In view of the size, an initiative calls for an immediate stop to the special manufacturing process, because thousands of workers already suffer from dangerous and chronic lung diseases.

(11/29/2010) The processing of jeans with a sandblaster gives the clothes a modern, slightly worn look. But for workers in manufacturing countries like Pakistan, China, Bangladesh or Egypt, working with the sandblaster poses considerable health risks - thousands of workers already suffer from dangerous lung diseases.

In view of the growing number of diseases, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) and its allies are calling for a worldwide stop in jeans production with sandblasting technology. The resulting dust attacks the lungs, causes severe scarring and can trigger the incurable, often fatal lung disease silicosis. For example, 46 deaths and 1,200 cases of illness have already been recorded in Turkey alone, the CCC explained. Julia Thimm emphasized on behalf of the INKOTA Netzwerk e.V. and the CCC: "We demand that the companies assume their responsibility for the damage incurred and provide medical care and appropriate financial compensation to the sandblasted victims."

Use of sandblasters already banned in Turkey

The use of sandblasters in the textile industry has been banned in Turkey since 2009 due to the health risks. Until then, the country was the main producer of the jeans processed with the sandblasting process. But of the roughly 10,000 workers in the industry over the years, around half are probably suffering from silicosis today, said Yesim Yasin, a member of a Turkish aid committee in Istanbul. However, a majority of the diseases have so far not been discovered, since the effects of the disease often only manifest themselves over the course of years, the expert explained. "The full extent of the problem only becomes known over time," emphasized Yasin, because workers often have no complaints in the first few years.

Since the ban in Turkey, orders have been increasing in countries such as Pakistan, China, Bangladesh or Egypt, where the basic rules of occupational safety are often not observed, the CCC experts explained. As long as appropriate sandblasting processes are used in production, no jeans producer can guarantee that the safety precautions that would be required for low-risk sandblasting are also complied with in the countries mentioned. Therefore, the CCC, together with numerous international labor law initiatives, warned that thousands of workers in the respective countries could face death if they continued to sandblast jeans under the given conditions. In addition, the Turkish Solidarity Committee of Sandblasting Laborers, the CCC and their partner organizations have asked all jeans producers to stop using sandblasting technology and to use suitable inspection mechanisms to ensure that the sandblasting process is not used in the entire production chain.

The first companies have already responded
The first companies such as H&M, Levis or C&A have already reacted to the problems with sandblasting technology and have announced that the processes in their production will be abolished by the end of 2010. Lee, Wrangler and Benetton have also agreed to stop sandblasting by the end of 2011 due to public pressure. With regard to possible compensation for the injured workers, however, all companies have so far been reluctant to reject. With good reason, because tens of thousands are likely to be affected and since silicosis is incurable and often fatal, considerable financial payments could be made here. Numerous companies, including all luxury brands such as Armani, Prada, Versace or Dolce & Gabbana, have so far had no position whatsoever on the demands of the CCC. "The fact that some companies act is not enough to cover the entire sector," said Wyger Wentholt of CCC's Saturday in Istanbul. Therefore, the Clean Clothing campaign is encouraging governments to "review bans on the import of such jeans," added Wentholt. According to the CCC, industry must also declare that it is willing to pay the treatment costs for workers who are already ill.

With around five billion jeans being produced annually worldwide and the cost pressure in production, it is likely that many companies will not or only very slowly change their production processes. For example, the use of sandblasters to create the "stone-washed effect" is unlikely to decrease as quickly as hoped. Because other processes that produce the same effect on jeans, such as laser processes or chemical methods, are considerably more expensive than the use of sandblasters. The most serious lung disease that can be caused by working with the sandblaster and that the CCC warns of is silicosis. The disease, actually known as Bergmann's disease, is caused by the inhalation and deposition of mineral dust, especially dust containing quartz, in the lungs. The deposition leads to the formation of nodular tissue and scarring of the lungs. The consequences are shortness of breath, cough and mucus, chronic bronchitis and, in the worst case, death from suffocation. According to the CCC, all companies in the clothing industry are therefore called upon to assume moral responsibility and not to give free rein to the small subcontractors, many of whom produce in the third world. (fp, 29.11.2010)

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Photo credit: Dieter Schütz /

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