Trendy Jeans, Painful Deaths

American and European consumers’ preferences for faded jeans have fed a process that has caused the deaths of dozens of garment workers in Turkey, according to an account by author Garrett Brown.

There are a number of ways to give jeans a worn look. However, in his article published in EHS Today, Brown says the most inexpensive is by sandblasting, where the jeans are blasted with a very fine sand that contains a substance known as chrystalline silica. The problem is that extended exposure to the silica without proper precautions can lead to silicosis, a degenerative lung condition that can be fatal.

In Turkey, the world’s third-largest jeans producer, authorities say that 42 garment workers died of silicosis in the two-year period through July 2007. Typically, Brown writes, they worked in rooms without ventilation and with nothing more than a paper dust mask to safeguard their air supply. With up to 10,000 people working in the industry, the Turkish government says that another 4,000 are at risk.

While Turkey is the focus of Brown’s account, it is far from the only country with garment workers at risk of silicosis. Other nations with at-risk workers include China, Mexico, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

Turkey followed much of the developed world in banning abrasive blasting in 2009, which sent the procedure into illegal, unregulated factories, but did not end the risk of silicosis for local workers.

Some industry heavyweights are not waiting for the government crackdown to be enforced in the developing world. Earlier this month, jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss and clothing retailer H&M announced that they would no longer use sandblasting on any of their product lines.

The companies said that while their factories have taken proper protections for their employees, other factories in the industry, while emulating their styles, often choose to disregard the proper safeguards.

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