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The Chemical Concerns in Denim Manufacturing

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The mass manufacturing of clothing is a hot topic in terms of workers’ rights and safety. In terms of mass-producing blue jeans, the process can be dangerous and even life threatening for blue jeans factory workers.  Sandblasting, an artificial method of distressing jeans, has been a safety concern since the 1990's when the distressed denim look became high in demand. However, there are other concerns around the chemicals used to finish the distressing process. Two chemicals that are often cited as potential health risks are potassium permanganate and sodium metabisulphate.

What is potassium permanganate?

Potassium permanganate, or KMnO 4, is a powerful oxidizing agent. A KMnO 4 spray is used to lighten the sandblasted areas of distressed denim, giving them a worn, aged look. 

What is sodium metabisulphate?

Sodium metabisulphate is another bleaching agent. Because potassium permanganate often produces a light brown color when applied to denim, sodium metabisulphate is used as a neutralizer to turn those areas closer to a shade of white. The result is the appearance of sun-bleaching or fading on the denim.

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Why are they dangerous?

Potassium permanganate can dye most organic material, including skin. Worse, it can irritate or burn your skin or eyes if you come into direct contact with it. Permanent eye damage is possible. 

Exposure to pure sodium metabisulphate can irritate your respiratory tract, causing asthma-like symptoms. Ingesting it may cause nausea, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal problems while contact with the skin can cause redness, pain, and itching. Sodium metabisulphate can also cause permanent damage to your eyes after direct contact. Potassium permanganate is also very volatile. 

Any contact between potassium permanganate and oxidizable substances, including simple alcohols, can result in violent combustion. Lastly, potassium permanganate can irritate the nose and lungs. High exposure levels can even cause pulmonary edema.

The lack of proper ventilation systems, protective gear (such as goggles, masks, and gloves), and adequate procedural training for factory workers makes the use of these chemicals extremely risky for their short-term and long-term health.

Sources:

http://www.livestrong.com/article/208572-dangers-of-sodium-metabisulfite/

http://www.cleanclothes.org/news/press-releases/2013/07/09/denim-workers-pay-deadly-price

http://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1578.pdf

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