We were recently criticized by an industry group of leather manufacturers for listing tannery operations #5 on the 2011 list of world’s worst toxic pollution problems. The group called our report’s assertions “sensationalist and not appropriate.” (Read our response in Leather International magazine or link to the full download here)
The point they are missing is that even though segments of the industry, especially those connected to large corporations, may be operating responsibly to limit toxic pollution, there are enough polluting tanneries to cause a real and serious health threat to about 1.8 million people, and a black eye to the industry as a whole.
These are mainly small-scale operations (see my previous post – Surprise – Corporations Not the Worst Pollution Problems) that operate informally without much regulation. And since they usually do not have a voice or representation in unions and other leather industry groups or associations, their polluting actions sometimes fly under the radar.
So we would like to take this opportunity to invite the leather industry to work with us to solve the problem. We know many tanneries are well run, but not all. Help us reach out, clean up and save lives.
Here is a portion of our response:
…The Union’s primary assertion was that tanneries use non-toxic trivalent chromium in the tanning process, not toxic hexavalent chromium. Blacksmith Institute is fully aware and acknowledges this point, but it does not address the problem at hand.
Trivalent chromium is used in the tanning process to make leather more durable. Solid and liquid waste containing this non-toxic form of chromium is often discarded near tanning facilities. Unfortunately for those living near such waste, trivalent chromium easily oxidizes to become carcinogenic hexavalent chromium upon disposal.
In solid waste, this conversion requires just heat and oxygen. In liquid waste, the conversion takes place in the presence of other minerals. Hexavalent chromium is highly soluble in water and quickly contaminates drinking water supplies, causing widespread illness. The sites in Blacksmith’s database include poorly managed tanneries, abandoned chromium supplies manufacturers, and legacy waste dumps of chromium, all with credible soil and water sampling showing elevated levels of hexavalent chromium in pathways to human exposure.