Hell for leather

Must-have handbags? shoes to die for? From cheap trinkets to luxury car interiors, Jim Wickens discovers the startling facts behind what we buy into when we buy leather goods.

Driving into the secretive alleyways of Hazaribagh, the first thing to hit you is the stench. A putrid cocktail of rotting flesh intermingled with nose-numbingly sharp tanning chemicals hangs in the air.

Tens of thousands of people toil here every day, living, breathing and dying amid a deadly mix of hundreds of chemicals pumped out by the leather tanneries that operate here.

It is a world made of leather. Barefoot children collect strips of it; chickens nest in it; babies play in it – even the cooking fuel here is made from it: toxic, dried blue strips of aldehyde- and chrome-treated leather that burns ferociously in every household stove.

Home to more than 100 tanneries, the Hazaribagh area of Dhaka produces much of Bangladesh’s leather, most of which is destined for export abroad. Each year $240 million worth of skins are exported from Bangladesh, most of which are sent to the fashion houses of Europe, Japan and China, for working into shoes, handbags and other accessories sold on high streets the world over.

Public prosperity versus public health

Leather tanning in Bangladesh and across Southern Asia, is a rapidly growing industry.

Spurred by retailer demand in the West, leather buyers in Asia have been welcomed with open arms by governments all-too-eager for a slice of the global market, and happy to turn a blind eye to non-existent safety regulations in return.

The government in Bangladesh argues that leather production is one of the country’s most important industries, providing thousands of jobs and bringing in much-needed foreign revenue. This lucrative trade comes at a cost, however. Many of the chemicals used in its production are toxic and highly controversial.

Campaigners and health experts claim that Hazaribagh’s tanneries are responsible for the chronic pollution of the city’s rivers and the systematic poisoning of tens of thousands of people. Chronic illness – directly linked to the effluents that flow from the tanning plants – is commonplace, say scientists.

Critics say safety and environmental standards in Bangladesh fall far below what would be acceptable in the West, and that the European chemical multinationals supplying the country’s leather industry are turning a blind eye to the problems.

Although the Bangladesh government and the leather industry itself have acknowledged the pollution, efforts to tackle it have proved largely ineffective. The construction of alternative sites and effluent treatment plant (ETPs), for instance, have been subject to constant delays and bureaucracy, and become mired in allegations of corruption.

In Hazaribagh, the Ecologist witnessed for itself the scale of the problem: electric-blue rivers of effluent gushing out of every tannery wall; a frothy, noxious cocktail of lead, chrome syntans, mercury, cadmium and corrosive acids that creeps along the open drains under the stilted homes of neighbouring slums, and then straight into the Dhaka’s primary river, the Buriganga.

Mr Mazakat Harun is the managing director of Chemi-tan, an exclusive agent for chemical company Clariant, whose products are sold to the tanneries of Bangladesh. Clariant is a Swiss-owned company that has chemical manufacturing plants around Europe, including in Yorkshire in the UK, and is one of the leading chemical suppliers to the tanneries in Hazaribagh.

Mr Harun estimates that 50 tonnes of chemicals are used every day in this area alone. None of the tanneries have ETPs.

In the Chemi-tan offices, located in the heart of Hazaribagh, glossy marketing posters from Clariant line the walls. They show images of carefree Western couples posing provocatively in converted sports cars and carry sales pitches for the British-produced chemicals being offered for sale, such as: ‘Take a seat in the upper class. Re-tanning and fat liquors at the cutting edge of performance and ecology’.

A river runs through it

After BASF, Clariant is the second largest supplier of tanning chemicals, filling 20 per cent of the market, or roughly 10 tonnes a day, by its own calculations. But, says Mr Harun, all Clariant’s products are ‘eco-friendly... We find this out from the literature’. For him, however, ‘eco-friendly’ is an ambiguous phrase.

The scientific evidence suggests that many of the ingredients supplied by Clariant and other European companies to the tanneries of Dhaka – ingredients such as chrome syntans, aldehydes and ‘bating agents’ [enzymes to soften the leather] – are hazardous to humans and extremely damaging to ecosystems if released without treatment.

For local people, the ‘eco-friendly’ claim has a similarly hollow ring. They believe the polluted water is responsible for a host of serious health problems.

‘It weakens your heart, your health. It damages your skin. Lots more bad things happen if you touch this water,’ says Yusuf Ali, a butcher from Hazaribagh. ‘It is contaminated with chemicals – even your television or mobile is destroyed here. Nothing lasts, everything is damaged by it.’ A nearby woman nursing a child complains that gases from the tanneries cause her eyes to sting and her skin to welt. She claims children have died after falling into ditches of the polluted water.

Downstream from the tannery outflow pipes, the river-dwelling Bader people are equally certain that the tannery pollution is responsible for their health problems.

‘The river is important to us because we wash our clothes here, we bathe in the water, we cook here, we do all the work you can think of around this river,’ one community member, Shababa, says. ‘But the problem I have is when I wash in this water. Then my whole body – my skin becomes darker and comes out in spots – my whole skin becomes irritated, my whole body starts itching.’

Famed for snake-catching and fishing, the Bader community now lives in squalor on dilapidated house boats that dot the banks of the river Buriganga. The river is their home and source of income; they’ve witnessed firsthand its destruction and, in the process, the destruction of their livelihoods.

‘Since the river has been ruined it has ruined us as well. Because of the water we are unable to do any of the work. We are destitute,’ Shababa says.

Health experts confirm the reports of local residents, linking the ill-effects observed by residents of Hazaribagh and those living downstream to the tannery waste:

‘The tanneries use almost 300 chemicals, and the majority of them are toxic,’ says Professor Akhtar Ahmad , head of Occupational and Environmental Health at the National Institute of Preventive and Social Medicine. ‘Chromium is widely used, for example. It is a very toxic substance and a carcinogen. These people are suffering from the toxic effects that occur from the chromium poisoning and chromium toxicity. Dermatitis, skin ulcers, gastric upset, burning sensation of the eyes – these are all symptomatic.’

The chronic nature of the pollution is so bad, claims Professor Ahmad, that sometimes workers experience nasal destruction, where chromium fumes eat away their septums.

Professor Ahmad is not alone in his concerns. A report by the Bangladesh Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) has revealed that up to half a million residents of Dhaka are at risk of serious illness due to chemical pollution from tanneries near their homes.

Professor Ahmad worries about a far wider problem, however.

During our visit to the area we are taken to sections of the Buriganga where thousands of people line the banks every morning, washing in putrid black water, scrubbing clothes, brushing teeth and tending floating beds of vegetables for miles downstream.

‘There must be highly developed toxic chemicals in the plants or vegetables grown and fish caught with this river water,’ he says, ‘and this food is being sent to the main markets of Dhaka.’

By Professor Ahmad’s own estimates, between 10 and 20 per cent of the entire population of Dhaka – more than two million people – is being exposed to toxic chemicals via this toxic food chain. It’s a serious health hazard caused largely by the unregulated flow of chemicals flooding from the tanneries.

Claims of pollution in the area are far from anecdotal: in 2007, a report by the Blacksmith Foundation, a New York-based charity, listed the 25 hectares upon which Hazaribagh is located as one of its ‘Dirty 30’ – the most polluted places on Earth.

Bangladeshi authorities have suggested that 6,000 cubic metres of liquid effluent and 10 tonnes of solid waste are released every day from here. Information obtained during our investigation suggests the rate of pollution may be worse still, due to the way in which some chemicals combine with others to create entirely new chemical compounds.

According to Dr Paul Johnston, lead scientist at Greenpeace International, unregulated tannery effluent mixes can create a Pandora’s box of pollutants, potentially more toxic and much harder to pinpoint than the isolated effects of the single chemicals themselves in laboratory conditions.

‘It is a bucket approach to chemistry down there,’ he says. ‘Even where we have a reasonable understanding of individual chemicals, we have no information on how they behave in mixture. The key issue is regulation, and they are simply not being regulated.’

It is a situation that has incensed the local people, who are now beginning to call upon the chemical companies to take responsibility for the problems they are experiencing.

Chemical overdose

‘BASF made annual sales of €14 billion overall in 2007 alone,’ says Jasodhan Paramanik, an activist based in Dhaka. ‘European governments must compel the chemical giants to spend part of their profits mitigating the environmental hazards caused by the use of the harmful chemicals that they sell.’

The tannery owners, however, disagree.

As the current director of Bengal Leather Complex Ltd, as well as president of Bangladesh Finished Leather, Leather Goods and Footwear Exporters’ Association, Tipu Sultan is the chief spokesperson for the tanneries that operate in Dhaka.

‘The European and North American plants are closing down because the cost of fitting effluent treatment plants are very high,’ he explains. ‘They can’t compete with their Asian counterparts.’ Sitting in front of an ornamental sculpture emblazoned with the Clariant symbol, Sultan dismisses the crisis affecting Hazaribagh and the Buriganga river. ‘All chemicals we buy are from European origin – with assurance your chemicals are not a problem for the environment or health hazard’

In Bangladesh, European chemicals are clearly seen as safe, and this is part of the problem – creating a laissez faire attitude for the tannery owners to distance themselves from the chronic pollution that the chemicals are causing. Yet toxics experts in Brussels argue that the weak nature of EU laws, such as the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation, do little to prevent the export of harmful pollutants from Europe to places such as Bangladesh, where treatment plants simply don’t exist.

‘The REACH we have today is but a shadow of the original proposal,’ says the Chem Trust, a body set up to prevent man-made chemicals from causing long-term damage to wildlife and humans. ‘The chemical industry weakened it so much that it can still use highly suspect chemicals even if a safer alternative exists. This seems madness, but is the reality.’

Campaigners argue that, despite the existence of regulatory frameworks set up to deal with chemical manufacture in the EU, these regulations have been so watered-down by chemical company lobbying that any assumptions about the safe nature of chemicals originating from within Europe are both misinformed and downright dangerous.

During this investigation, the Ecologist gained access to two tanneries in Hazaribagh, both of which export to the EU shoe market and leather fashion houses in Italy. Filthy blue chemical barrels were observed piled up alongside workers in bare feet. Daylight and ventilation is scarce in these buildings and the build-up of chemical fumes is overwhelming.

According to SEHD, working environments such as these are the norm in Dhaka’s tanneries, and large numbers of the 8,000 to 12 000 workers at the tanneries suffer from gastrointestinal and dermatological diseases, as well as other diseases that are clearly linked to these polluted places. SEDH claims that 90 per cent of tannery workers will be dead by the age of 50.

Blame it on the buyers

Sitting in the executive office of the Leather Goods and Footwear Manufacturers & Exporters’ Association of Bangladesh, the senior vice-president and director of Apex Tannery Ltd in Hazaribagh, Mr Syed Nazim Mazur, places the blame for the pollution not with the European chemical manufacturers nor with the consumers who buy the cheap products overseas, but squarely at the feet of the global buyers themselves.

‘Look, we would love to have high-quality effluent treatment plants,’ he says, ‘but it’s a question of the middlemen, who are making vast margins of profit at 300 to 400 per cent mark-ups. Are they prepared to allow ethical considerations to eat into profit? In most cases the answer is a resounding “no”.’

Hazaribagh’s tanneries are caught in a vulnerable position. The very factors that appeal to foreign buyers – quality products at very low production cost – would, the argument goes, be eaten away with the costly burden of strict worker safety laws and European-standard effluent treatment plants.

Yet the Dhaka-based leather industry is also waking up to the fact that if it doesn’t act soon then the sheer scale of the unreported humanitarian and environmental crisis in Hazaribagh could soon drive their precious customers away.

Increasing consumer awareness and calls for greater transparency are forcing retailers to reconsider what they source and where it is from. For them, Hazaribagh is a PR disaster in the making.

With this in mind, the plan is to relocate to Hemayetpur, a new purpose-built area for the tanneries 20km outside of Dhaka, somewhere spacious enough for the tanneries to expand and also to build a common effluent treatment plant. It is a move much vaunted by tannery owners and the government alike as a sign that all the problems are being resolved.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. Seven years on from the initial plans to relocate the tanneries, only one of the 100 proposed buildings in the new complex has even started construction.

Valued at $40 billion a year and rising, cheap leather goods continue to supply the global fashion market today. The world’s appetite for leather is a dream come true for tanneries, chemical companies and fashion retailers in Bangladesh and beyond.

Meanwhile for Shababa, and thousands like her who live in Hazaribagh and downstream of the tanneries, the nightmare continues.

‘Because of the tanneries our water has turned black,’ she says. ‘For that reason the water has ruined everything.’

In April, the Bangladeshi government announced that in the absence of available funds, once again, the tannery relocation project has been suspended indefinitely.

Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist
and producer at Ecostorm

Now watch the film. . .

The Ecologist Film Unit is a new project that takes our renowned environmental reporting to a whole new level, and a whole new audience. You can now see our film "Hell for Leather" by clicking here.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008

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