Toxic textiles: the lethal history of Rayon

Preface. This is a book review from Science magazine of Paul David Blanc’s 2016 book “Fake Silk The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon”, Yale University Press.  I’ve shortened the review and changed some of the text.

This book exposes how rayon, aka viscose, and especially the compound within it — carbon disulfide is very toxic, and has destroyed the bodies and minds of factory workers for over a century.

Blanc makes the case that the harm done by rayon deserves to be as well known as asbestos insulation, leaded paint, and mercury-tainted seafood in Minimata Bay.

It made me wonder how many other man-made materials harm the lives of those who make them, but are yet to be undiscovered, or already are known to be harmful but remain unregulated due to the powerful chemical industry lobby, i.e. flame retardants, which despite decades of scientific research showing them to be harmful, are still not regulated, despite 40 bills introduced into state legislatures — only two were passed (West, J. 2018. Update on the regulatory status of flame retardants).

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Monosson, E. 2016. Toxic Textiles. A physician uncovers the disturbing history of an “ecofriendly” fiber. Science 354: 977

In this slim, action-packed book, Paul David Blanc takes the reader on a historical tour that touches on chemistry, occupational health, and the maneuverings of multinational corporations.

Who knew that the fabric that has had its turn on the high-fashion runway, as a pop-culture joke (remember leisure suits?), and more recently as a “green” textile had such a dark side?

Rayon is a cellulose-based textile in which fibers from tree trunks and plant stalks are spun together into a soft and absorbent fabric. First patented in England in 1892, viscose-rayon production was firmly established by the American Viscose Company in the United States in 1911. Ten years later, the factory was buzzing with thousands of workers. “[E]very man, woman, and child who had to be clothed” were once considered potential consumers by ambitious manufacturers.

However, once the silken fibers are formed, carbon disulfide—a highly volatile chemical—is released, filling factory workrooms with fumes that can drive workers insane. Combining accounts from factory records, occupational physicians’ reports, journal articles, and interviews with retired workers, Blanc reveals the misery behind the making of this material: depression, weeks in the insane asylum, and, in some cases, suicide. Those who were not stricken with neurological symptoms might still succumb to blindness, impotency, and malfunctions of the vascular system and other organs. For each reported case, I could not help but wonder how many others retreated quietly into their disabilities or graves.

Yet, “[a]s their nerves and vessels weakened, the industry they worked in became stronger,” writes Blanc. In Fake Silk, he exposes an industry that played hardball: implementing duopolies and price-fixing and influencing federal health standards. Viscose manufacturers, he writes, served as a “prototype of a multinational business enterprise, an early model of what would become the dominant modus operandi for large business entities after World War II.

The business of transforming plants into products is once again on the rise as consumers increasingly shun petroleum-based synthetic materials. China now accounts for 60% of rayon production, with India, Thailand, and several other countries accounting for the rest. (According to Blanc, U.S. production of viscose rayon has “gone offline.”) Yet, despite modernization of the manufacturing process—including improved ventilation—worker safety, writes Blanc, is not a given. The few available reports on contemporary production suggest that recommended exposure limits are often exceeded.

The fabric’s recent rebirth as an ecofriendly product [marketed by one manufacturer with the tagline “Nature returns to Nature” (1)], notes Blanc, is a “real tour de force of corporate chutzpah.

Years ago, I taught a class focused on toxic textiles. Had Blanc’s book Fake Silk been available at the time, it certainly would have been on the reading list.

“I am motivated by a desire to memorialize the terrible suffering that has occurred,” writes Blanc. With Fake Silk, he has surely succeeded.

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