Science & the Public

Janet Raloff
Science & the Public

Lung disease: A human cost of ‘worn’ denim

The industry that prematurely ages blue jeans hasn't always put safety first

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Most teenage girls wouldn’t deign to wear deep indigo or even crisp bleached jeans. They simply look too new. Fashion dictates that they don broken-in jeans, or at least pants that appear well-worn. So manufacturers have, for decades now, prematurely aged apparel by sandblasting the fabric. A new study out of Turkey finds that some workers charged with giving denim that well-worn look pay a high price: the development of silicosis – an irreversible and potentially lethal lung disease.

Their diagnosis is serious since this incurable illness often continues to worsen even after exposure to silica – in this case, sand – ends.

Over the course of a year, radiologist Cihan –zmen of the Dicle University School of Medicine, in Diyarbakir, and her colleagues recruited 60 sandblasters working at Istanbul denim factories to receive conventional chest X-rays and computed tomography (3-dimensional X-ray) scans. The workers had routinely faced heavy exposure to airborne silica for long periods in the absence of good ventilation or filtering masks. They volunteered to take part, the researchers note, “after learning about the severity of [silicosis] from our previously diagnosed patients.”

In general, the recruits were young, only an average of 26 years old. Their exposures had also been relatively short, just two months to five years.

Radiological exams confirmed silicosis in 44 of the men, and in every case their disease was clinically classified as accelerated, –zmen and her coworkers reported April 17 in Environmental Health, an online journal. Men receiving the diagnosis tended to have worked longer than those who remained silicosis-free, but were the same ages, as likely to have smoked – and if so, to have consumed as many cigarettes and for just as long.

Silicosis victims typically develop abnormal nodules in their lungs. And every silicosis victim in this study had such nodules. Other features of the patients’ disease tended to match those seen in silicosis studies by others, including a high rate of emphysema.

The authors note that several earlier studies over the past seven years had linked Turkish sandblasting of denim to silicosis. Although those studied tended to uncover a lower incidence of disease, –zmen’s team points out that its radiological techniques are more sensitive to uncovering early manifestations of this lung disease.

“Silicosis is one of the oldest occupational diseases and kills thousands of people worldwide every year,” the Dicle researchers observe. So risks associated with sandblasting fabric should come as no surprise to jeans makers – nor regulators. Indeed, some deaths have already occurred in this industry. The tragedy is that the health of hundreds of workers or more are being jeopardized not for some public good but for fickle fashion. And probably half a world away from where the jeans' wearers parade derrieres decked out in sand-abraded denim.

Let’s hope manufacturers in Turkey and elsewhere begin to put safety first – investing not only in respiratory masks and ventilation, but also in their workers’ education.

Citations

C.A., et al. 2010. MDCT Findings of Denim-Sandblasting-Induced Silicosis: A cross-sectional study. Environmental Health 9(April 17). doi:10.1186/1476-069X-9-17

University of California, San Francisco. 2009. Silicosis: Occupational Lung Disease (January 22). [Go to]

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