Leather is the Toxic Product of Human Slavery
Leather is a heartless and toxic material from start to finish. It is made from the bodies of tortured animals, processed with heavy chemicals by virtual slaves, and the waste from it’s production pollutes the earth’s soil and waterways.
Leather is neither vegan, humane, nor healthy.
The Romance of Leather
Historically, leather has been seen as a natural and luxurious material. We associate the fragrance of leather with opulence and wealth. It’s scent is even found in high-end perfumes! Many vegetarians even wear leather, believing it less toxic to the environment.
But what if I told you this “natural” material is likely more toxic than man-made alternatives?
Most Leather is the Product of Unspeakable Human Suffering and Slavery
If you think garment factories are bad, think again. They pale in comparison with tanneries.
We all know that leather is made from animal skins. But it’s also made in a large part off of the underpaid labour of workers (often children) in the developing world.
Workers in tanneries can be as young as seven years of age. They work 10 hour days for $37 a month, according to Human Rights Watch. If they cannot work due to workplace injury, they are not paid.
If you think buying expensive leather goods ensures that workers are treated fairly, think again. Some of the most expensive leather in the world, like “bengal black” come from Bangladesh, where waste from tanneries flows directly into the river, untreated and workers receive no protection from the deadly chemicals.
Most tanneries fail to provide protective equipment such as gloves, masks, boots, and aprons. As a result, workers suffer from horrendous skin maladies and cancers.
Human Rights Watch reports that tannery workers:
displaya range of health conditions including prematurely aged, discolored, itchy, peeling, acid-burned, and rash-covered skin; fingers corroded to stumps; aches, dizziness, and nausea; and disfigured or amputated limbs (HRW, 2012).
Human Rights Watch’s report on over 150 tanneries in Hazaribagh – a neighbourhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh – revealed that “no Hazaribagh tannery has an effluent treatment plant to treat its waste.”
Consequently, chemicals run unimpeded off the floor of the tannery and into the gutters. The water ends its journey in the Buriganga, one of Dhaka’s main rivers.
The Bangladesh government estimates tanneries dump 21,600 cubic meters of untreated water each day. The levels of pollution are consistently above the established limits Bangladesh has placed on tannery wastewater “in some cases by many thousands of times the permitted concentrations.”
Kanpur, India, known as the “Leather City of World” has approximately 400 tanneries. In 2003 these tanneries dumped over 22 tons of waste into the Ganges river EACH AND EVERY DAY. This appalling pollution was finally addressed in 2009, when the city decided to close 49 of its top polluters. If that sounds like a drop in the bucket to you, you’d be right.
But Leather is More Biodegradable!
Yes and no.
It takes about 50 years for treated leather to biodegrade, whereas it takes plastic approximately 500 years to biodegrade
For this reason, we burn PVC and polyurethane when they reach end of life. Burning these products releases dioxins and other chemicals into the environment.
For many people, this is where the argument ends. They hear that plastic takes longer to biodegrade and assume leather is a better option because it’s more “natural.”
But they are wrong.
Leather is Natural?
Many people falsely believe that leather is superior to alternatives because it is “natural.”
This is patently false.
Leather is skin, and designed to biodegrade when untreated.
Leather would be pretty useless if it started to mold and decay after exposure to moisture! The solution is treating it with a variety of chemicals to prevent the natural degradation of the material.
It takes plastic 500 years to biodegrade. That means plastics release their toxins very slowly. Leather, on the other hand, is leaching toxins rapidly from the moment it enters your wardrobe. It’s fairly obvious that if leather degrades 10x more quickly, it releases chemicals at 10x the rate as well.
95% of Leather Leaches Hexavalent Chromium after Tanning
If you don’t care about the animals, the environment, or the lives of people working for slave wages in far off lands, consider this: virtually all leather used in clothing oxidizes hexavalent chromium.
If Cr-6 (hexavalent chromium) sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s the same chemical Erin Brokovitch discovered in the water of that small town. Ring a bell? Since you don’t live in Bangladesh or other tannery-heavy nations, you probably don’t need to worry about your water. But what about your shoes?
The chromium used in tanning is the good kind: trivalent chromium. Trivalent chromium, CR-3, is actually good for you in small amounts. But as it oxidizes in leather goods, it begins to express hexavalent chromium.
Hexavalent Chromium Appears
Although trivalent chromium-Cr(III) is used in leather preparation, this form of chromium oxidizes during use as both Cr(III) and Cr(VI)(Moretto, 2015). Researchers downplay the amount of Cr(VI) in leather goods, because, as we shall see, most studies have been based on a 7-10 day use period. Since most leather is used for longer than a week, this seems patently absurd. Moretto (2015), acknowledges the presence of some Cr (VI) in footwear, but brushes off concerns by saying that “bad quality and worn-off leather goods” should be replaced.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider my footwear “old” or “worn” after ten days. Which is how often you would need to replace your shoes based on Hedberg and Liden’s study, which noticed a sharp increase in Cr(VI) emissions after 10 days (Hedberg, 2016).
A Danish study revealed that leather footwear contains sufficient chromium content to cause contact dermatitis and eczema. And paying more won’t help. The study actually founder higher concentrations of chromium in the most expensive shoes! 95% of the shoes leached chromium. Hexavalent chromium (the extraordinarily toxic variety) “was extracted from 44% of 18 footwear products.” Furthermore, they noted that “in three items, more than 10 ppm was extracted. One shoe had 62 ppm Cr(VI) extracted.” Sandals (remember, women usually wear sandals without hosiery) “seemed over-represented among footwear with detectable Cr(VI)” (Thyssen, et al., 2012).
So, the study revealed that the leather in shoes contains enough chromium to cause contact dermatitis (which becomes more of a risk with each exposure).
Still, this was a short term study. It only lasted one week. The results indicate more Cr(III) – which is less toxic – was released than Cr (VI). But most of us wear shoes for more than a week. What happens in longer studies?
Studies Going Beyond 10 Days
In 2016, Swedish researchers tested leather for Chromium release over an 8 month period (Herderg, 2016).
They found that Cr(III)release decreased with time. But over the 8 month period, Cr(VI) emissions actually increased. Hexavalent chromium represented over half of the emissions in the final test period. It also “exceeded 9 mg/kg in all immersion periods except in the first 10-day immersion (2.6 mg/kg).” Meaning that while Hexavalent Chromium release quadrupled AFTER the first 7 day period – the only period that most researchers have historically examined (Hedberg, 2016).
What does this mean? It means that footwear produces concentrations of Hexavalent Chromium emissions far higher than those recommended by the CDC. According to the CDC,
Cr(VI) compounds induced DNA damage, gene mutation, sister chromatid exchange, chromosomal aberrations in a number of targets, including animal cells in vivoand animal and human cells in vitro.
Oh, and they cause cancer, too.
Cr(VI) Toxicity Levels
The Swedish study showed Cr(VI) contact levels of 9mg/kg after 8 months of leather use.
How does this compare to the levels of Cr(VI) permitted by the EPA and CDC?
It’s difficult to say. The EPA allows Cr(VI) in water at levels up to 100 ug/l (.1 mg). OSHA has a target for surfaces of no more than 0.050 μg/100 cm2.
There is no established limit for skin exposure, but we do know that the 9mg/kg is 50 times higher than the amount needed to cause an allergic reaction in sensitive persons.
I did find out that the lethal dose for rabbit from dermal (skin) exposure was approximately a Cr(VI) dose of 500 mg/kg. (Guertin et al., 2016:223)Which is about 55 times higher than what the Swedish researchers find coming off leather daily.
I sincerely doubt that you would drop dead even if you wrapped yourself head to toe in shoe leather and wore it 24×7 for the rest of your life. And we know rabbits are far more sensitive to most toxins than human beings are. Still, it indicates the need for more research into skin exposure to Cr(VI) from leather. From this research alone, it’s prudent to conclude that even small precautions like wearing socks with shoes could make a tremendous difference in your health.
You aren’t a rabbit, and your jacket probably isn’t going to kill you. But it might very well raise your risk for DNA damage, cancer and a host of other illnesses
Dioxins are extremely toxic chemical compounds associated with “cancer, immune system disorders, endocrine disruption, and birth defects.” The are also implicated in heart disease (Brown, 2008) .
Interestingly, researchers do not allow leather workers to be used in studies of dioxins. Why? Because in addition to their significant exposure to dioxins in the tanning process, they are exposed to large amounts of other poisons, including methylmercury, arsenic, and xylene.
In other words, leather production includes so many toxic chemicals, it’s impossible to find out study the effects of a single toxin.
These chemicals do not magically disappear from the final product. They are released into the environment at every stage of the process (Cocheco, 1990).
Tannery Waste Poisons Chickens?
In fact, tannery waste is not only poisoning the workers and the water. It also poisons chickens. The International Leather Maker reported in 2014 that waste from tanneries was constantly fed to chickens in Bangladesh.
The leather industry produces 100 tons of solid waste per day on average in Bangladesh. Companies turn this material into about 75 tons of chicken and fish feed. The problem is, these leather, hair and bone scraps contain enormous quantities of chromium.
Testing revealed some chickens had chromium levels as high as 4,561mg per kg, despite the fact that the safe limit for the entire human body is 10-60 mg. No company involved was fined. This is likely because experts encourage the practice, in spite of the risks, because of its cost savings.
Don’t buy leather. At the very least, please take a closer look at the tanneries in the developing world and ask yourself if you can buy products made in those conditions.
Like most things involving the abuse of sentient beings, leather is a cascading snowball of suffering.
Animals live horrible lives and die tragic deaths. We then take their skins and use the most vulnerable people on earth to process them. These people work long hours for pennies so that we can have leather shoes. Ultimately, that leather might poison us, too.
It’s time to wake up. Even if you aren’t convinced of the importance of animal rights, surely you can see the social, heath and environmental costs of this outmoded material.
We no longer need leather.
There are many far more humane, more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Not just polyurethane and other plastics. We now have a myriad of textiles, including Ultrasuede made from 100% recycled materials. Be part of the solution, and choose compassion over tradition.
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Daily Star.”Four factories busted for using tannery waste.”http://www.thedailystar.net/four-factories-busted-for-using-tannery-waste-34792
Guertin, Jacques, James A. Jacobs, Cynthia P. Avarian, eds. Chromium(VI) Handbook.CRC Press, 2016 Full Text: http://www.engr.uconn.edu/~baholmen/docs/ENVE290W/National%20Chromium%20Files%20From%20Luke/Cr(VI)%20Handbook/L1608_C06.pdf
Hedberg, Yolanda S. and Liden, Carola. “Chromium(III) and chromium(VI) release from leather during 8 months of simulated use”Contact Dermatitis, 2016 May;66(5):279-85. retrieved January 5, 2017 Full Text
International Leather Maker.”Tannery Waste Contaminating Chicken Feed.”http://internationalleathermaker.com/news/fullstory.php/aid/912/Tannery_waste_contaminating_chicken_feed.html retrieved January 6, 2017
Jayathilakan, K. et al. “Utilization of Byproducts and Waste Materials from Meat, Poultry and Fish Processing Industries: A Review.” Journal of Food Science and Technology 49.3 (2012): 278–293. PMC. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.
Moretto, A. “Hexavalent and trivalent chromium in leather: What should be done?” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. 2015 Nov;73(2):681-6.
World Health Organization “Dioxins and their effects on human health” Fact sheet. Updated October 2016.http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/ retrieved January 5, 2017