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Study: Millions Exposed to Toxins

A new study looks at the health risks of such industrial processes as tannery operations and textile dyeing

GENEVA — Millions of people, particularly workers in poor nations, face serious health risks from exposure to toxic pollutants used in industrial processes such as tannery operations and textile dyeing, according to a new study.

This story first appeared in the November 18, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Toxic exposure associated with mining and industrial processes all over the world “is a major health risk for the affected population,” said David Hanrahan, head of the global program at the U.S.-based Blacksmith Institute, which prepared the study jointly with the nonprofit Green Cross Switzerland.

“The World’s Worst Toxic Pollution Problems Report, 2011,” which draws on data collected from over 2,000 toxic hot spots in the last three years, estimates that the sites studied cause, on average, 12.7 years of life lost to death or disability per person affected.

Although there are thousands of tanneries worldwide, the report said about 1.9 million people are impacted by chromium pollution from 62 tannery operations sites evaluated in South Asia, 11 in South America, nine in Africa, and three in Central America. Tanning involves the processing of raw leather to make it more resilient and stronger for use in a variety of products, including shoes and accessories.

The report highlights the two types of tanning are chrome tanning and vegetable tanning, and points out that chrome tanning accounts for a large majority of the industry. But it also reveals that as the process creates a lot of waste water, chromium contamination is a common problem associated with tannery effluents, and can pose a serious threat to human health and the environment.

Ingestion of hexavalent chromium (chromium VI), a toxic human carcinogen used in the tanning industry, can cause or increase the rates of certain cancers and can lead to eye damage, ulcers and bronchitis, and damage kidney and liver functions, it notes.

In Hazaribagh, a major tanning region of Bangladesh that has some 300 separate tanneries, the report estimates that 7.7 million liters of waste water and 88 million tons of solid waste are disposed annually, and are responsible for the contamination of surface and groundwater systems.

The report also cites about 400 small tannery operations located in Northern India along the banks of the Ganges river that are contaminating the area due to inadequate waste treatment facilities.