Chromium and leather tanning

Chromium, is it worth it?

Chromium is a chemical element, silver- grey in colour. While Chromium’s main uses are in metals to protect them, it is also used as a catalyst in the dyeing and in the tanning of leather and other textiles. People can be exposed to chromium through breathing, eating or drinking and through skin contact with chromium or chromium compounds. This means that when wearing clothing, such as leather that has been dyed using chromium, exposure is increased substantially. This exposure has effects on our health and the environment.

Related Article: Lives Lost to Leather: Toxic Chemicals Harming Child Workers in Bangladesh

Health Effects of Chromium

The use of chromium has many issues, concerning both the health of the people wearing the clothes that are created with Chromium, as well as concerning the health of the workers creating the clothing. Some effects of chromium can result in:

  • Skin rashes: Rashes can include skin bleaching which can be permanent and it can also lead to eczema.
  • Nose irritation and nosebleeds: This is mainly as a result of breathing in the chemical, and is common with the workers making the leather.
  • Upset stomachs and ulcers: These come from the intake of chromium, such as when it gets in crops that are eaten.
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Leather tanning effects

  • Respiratory problems: Is also an issue as the chemicals are being breathed in, and have been a huge difference for
  • Weakened immune systems: Can affect anyone wearing or working with the chromium, can lead to other health issues.
  • Kidney and liver damage: Kidney and liver damage can result in issues with metabolic processes in the body, and with filtering of the blood.
  • Alteration of genetic material: Only as a result of exposure over extended periods of time
  • Lung cancer: As a result of inhaling the chemicals for long periods of time.
  • Death
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Leather Tanning Workers

Environmental Effects of Chromium

Other problems that arise through the use of chromium include the environmental issues, as it will enters the soil, air and water due to both human and natural processes. The textile industry is the main way that Chromium ends up in the environment, specifically water. Only a very small portion of the chromium that is found in water will dissolve, which has effects on both the wildlife that rely upon this water as well as some of the crops, which will eventually be consumed by humans. Chromium can be toxic to organisms and can alter genetic material and cause cancer. In animals chromium can cause respiratory problems, a lower ability to fight disease, birth defects, infertility and tumor formation.

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Alternative ways to “make” leather

As chromium-tanned hides and skins are called wet blue, other forms of tanning like the ones made of aluminum, zirconium, titanium, iron salts, or a combination thereof, lead to skins known as wet white. Using any of these chemicals instead of chromium brings the leather to the same stage, but is much more eco-friendly.  These alternate methods are not as commonly used as chromium tanning because they are less efficient, and will decay faster.

In conclusion, the chromium used in the making of leather is damaging to people’s health as well as the environment. Alternative methods of tanning provide a better option option for the environment, but are far less efficient. When looking to buy leather, be sure to check the tag to see what it was made with, and to provide yourself with more knowledge.

Alternatives to Leather

Vegan Leather: As the name suggest is an animal friendly option to normal leather. It is becoming more widely used as of recently, as it is nearly indistinguishable from normal leather and is cheaper to manufacture. They can be cork-based, kelp based or made from synthetic materials. It seems like there are interesting new options every week.

Related Article: Vegan Leather Bags

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Pleather: Another option is pleather, while this was once seen as tacky, it now is seen as an option which is animal friendly. Pleather originates from “plastic leather” as it is created typically from polyurethane film. It is a lighter, more flexible and less restrictive material than leather, is easier to clean and therefore is about as durable as real leather. This option is also often significantly cheaper than real leather, making it more affordable.  Like anything that originates from petrochemicals it has concerning health and environmental impacts

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