Thursday February 09, 2017

Why rayon is killing industry workers: author Paul Blanc

Author of Fake Silk, Paul Blanc says the manufacturing of viscose rayon served as a death sentence for many industry workers because it is so toxic to produce.

Author of Fake Silk, Paul Blanc says the manufacturing of viscose rayon served as a death sentence for many industry workers because it is so toxic to produce. (Yale University Press/Courtesy of Paul Blanc)

Listen 18:53

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For well over a century, viscose rayon has been used to make clothes, tires, cellophane and everyday kitchen sponges.

It was hailed as a wondrous new product when first introduced — but what most people didn't know is how deadly manufacturing rayon was for the factory workers.

It's an industrial hazard whose egregious history ranks up there with asbestos, lead and mercury, according to author Paul Blanc.

In his new book Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, Blanc, who is also a University of California professor of medicine, looks at how the manufacturing of viscose rayon served as a death sentence for many industry workers.

"There was a famous rubber factory where they put bars on the second story windows because so many workers had a tendency to jump out and kill themselves," He tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

The key ingredient in the making of viscose is a molecule called carbon disulfide — a molecule so insidiously toxic that it devastated the minds and bodies of factory workers for more than a century.

Blanc says that occupational health and multinational corporations were aware of the dangers, but motivated by huge profits, failed to act.

"It was pretty easy to recognize the toxic effects early on because it makes workers insane. They found that about 30 per cent of the workers that they investigated showed signs of serious poisoning."

But when it comes to the health impact on consumers, Blanc says there is none.

"Which is why ... it's gone on as long. Because when consumers aren't affected, there's not very much impetus for outrage if it's just the poor people making it that suffer."

Blanc says the fabric continues to this day to be "greenwashed" as an eco-friendly product.

"They omit entirely the fact that you can't make the product without this toxic chemical. So it's really a 'greenwashing' of the most diabolical sort."

The Current tried to get comment from companies in China and Japan who still produce rayon and cellulose but they did not respond.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by Calgary network producer Michael O'Halloran.