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Those enticing handbags, jackets, sofas and armchairs we view as we walk through the mall are normally made from genuine leather. Every car interior covets the new leather smell we all love. But, where is it that this leather comes from? Of course, we know most are from pigs, cows, snakes, buffalo, kangaroos and even some from fish and ostriches. Leather products are sought after and the global market for the plethora of leather applications is gargantuan. A digital publication of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimates the leather industry to be around $200 billion annually. Footwear is the largest seller and worth about $47 billion while gloves come in next at $12.3 billion. But did we ever think about the negative impact these products might have on our health?
Leather tanning is a big industry business in Bangladesh. About 90% of the country’s leather was tanned in Hazaribagh in 2015 and 2016 to the tune of about $1.5 billion in leather and leather goods. These tanneries have dumped about 5.8 million gallons of untreated liquid waste into the Buriganga River that included scraps of hide, flesh, surfectants, chromium III and ammonium sulphate. This river was once the main source of drinking water and has become so polluted now that it is widely regarded as unsafe for human consumption.
The chromium has been associated with several negative effects for both human health and the environment as it can easily oxidize to chromium VI that is a suspected carcinogen. This causes acute and chronic damage to the aquatic environment. Chickens are fed tannery scraps as a staple and most people there eat an average of 250 grams of chicken per day and ingest 4X the amounts of chromium deemed healthy.
Human health is adversely affected by tanning toxins and dyes where studies have linked them to nasal, testicular and bladder cancers. These have all been linked by studies to the dyes or solvents used during the leather finishing process. Later lung and pancreatic cancers began to be reported in association with leather dust and tanning.
Most consumers have no way of knowing where the leather in their products come from. Some designers and retailers refuse to purchase from tanneries where human rights are violated because of the age of the workers, conditions and chemicals used for processing. The fashion industry should have a moral responsibility as well as the consumers towards the use of leather products. Even those dog chews that we buy for the pet we love like our children can be toxic. It does keep their teeth strong and some have meat or protein in them, but it is a by-product of the leather industry. Dyes and highly toxic chemicals are used to make these chewy toys and then they are often painted with titanium dioxide to make them a pale, uniform color. Testing might reveal substances like lead, arsenic, mercury and formaldehyde. These can cause digestive issues, including diarrhea and even become a choking hazard or cause dangerous blockages in the esophagus or digestive tract.
Giving up leather as part of our wardrobe is an individual choice, but do consider the environmental issues before making a decision as the process of tanning leather is incredibly toxic. Try turning to vegetable, tree-bark or other natural tanning alternatives. The finished product isn’t as stable or supple as the chemically generated methods, but much safer. Synthetically tanned leather might be another method of choice. Even fabrics as cork, wood, linen, hemp, cotton, bamboo and ultrasuede are good alternatives. The chemical Chromium VI has been labeled a known human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, the World Health Organization and IARC and has become strictly regulated.
Dr Fredda Branyon