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The price of fashion?

December 21, 2010

Campaigners are eager to put an end to the practice of sandblasting jeans because of a link with the disease silicosis. In Turkey, where the practice is now banned, thousands of ex-workers are thought to be suffering.

A human's lungs
Fine particles of sand can scar the lungs of blasting workersImage: DW-TV

Consumers looking for a pair of jeans with that special worn look might want to check the label, according to campaigners.

The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) is calling for a global ban on the practice of sandblasting, in which denim is sprayed with sand at high pressure to give the material a distressed look.

Sandblasting is associated with the disease silicosis - a lung disease caused by fine particles of sand thrown into the air during the process. Turkey was a major producer of sandblasted garments before a ban on the process was implemented in 2009.

Sandblasted jeans
Sandblasted jeans are popular on the high streetImage: MP2/Fotolia

Around 10,000 people have been employed in sandblasting, according to Yesim Yasin, from the Istanbul-based Solidarity Committee of Sandblasting Laborers.

"Unfortunately many studies reveal the fact that almost 50 percent of the total number of employees are expected to contract this disease, silicosis," Yasin said.

"Silicosis has always been and still is incurable. The workers are sick, but as they have worked in the informal sector they have no basic legal rights."

Effort to persuade big firms

The committee and the CCC have started a campaign for Turkey to recognize that victims of sandblasting are victims of an industrial disease. This would enable the families of 46 workers who have already died to receive benefits and support. The groups also say that silicosis sufferers who are still alive are in need of help.

One of them is 39-year-old Mehmet Basak; doctors predict he has about a year to live.

"I am having difficulty while walking, especially when I have to climb up a hill or even stairs I am totally out of breath, I cannot breathe," Basak told Deutsche Welle.

A view of Istanbul
Turkey was a center for sandblasting until the banImage: AP

"I used to work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dust would build up all over my body, you couldn't even recognize me or my co-workers until we showered."

The Clean Clothes Campaign says that the garment industry is getting around the Turkish prohibition by shifting the work to subcontractors in developing countries; they argue that this is immoral on health grounds.

The group - an alliance of organizations in 15 European countries - is trying to persuade jeans makers to abandon the practice altogether.

"A number of big jeans producers like Levis Strauss and H&M have all said they would stop sandblasting with almost immediate effect, or by the end of this year," said Wyger Wentholdt from the CCC. "There are a couple of jeans brands who have not wanted to react to our approach at all."

Wendholt warned that, after lobbying, a name and shame campaign could follow against firms that persist in using the material.

Author: Dorian Jones, Istanbul (rc)
Editor: Nancy Isenson