Potassium Permanganate is now used in 90% of processes to create the bleached look in denim products sold across our high streets. Its use became widespread after sandblasting – the former technique used to fade denim – was shown to cause the 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.
Workers were shown to be provided with ineffectual dust masks rather than gas masks in their workplaces, but even then, equipment was rarely used.
One worker said: “I was ill 20 days ago. I was too weak to stand upright. Our workplace physician examined my lungs and said “Go and see a doctor in a hospital.” No hospital accepts patients here without an appointment. I couldn’t get permission from work. I thought maybe I could get an in without an appointment, you know because its an emergency, they can make an exception. But they didn’t, they sent me back.”
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, 6 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 2000 – 3000 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.
The report, published by the Turkish Clean Clothes Campaign, is the first of its kind conducted into the impacts of Potassium Permanganate on workers in Turkey. Abdulhalim Demir, a former Turkish denim worker who suffered lung problems, is the report’s author.
He said: “We lost 122 people to Silicosis as a result of work in the denim industry. Neither we nor the sector can handle another tragedy. We have to make sure workers are safe.”
The report is based on interviews with a small sample of workers from 8 factories supplying international brands. The research is intended as a starting point to promote further medical investigation. Researchers are also calling on legislators to investigate legal regulation for Potassium Permanganate usage in the textile industry in Turkey.
Read the full report here.