Rarely do we think much of the processes used to produce the sleek leather belts we wear…
Or the classy leather handbags we carry around…
Or even the cool leather shoes we put on.
When I was younger, I often thought that hides and skins would mystically convert into the leather products we enjoy so often.
Though my naivete was challenged in my college days during a visit to one of the nearby leather tanneries, it wasn’t prepared for the methods used in the production process.
Leather production in many ways is a messy affair…
And it gets messier if the tannery is informal in nature.
Don’t get me wrong…
Leather production is an industry putting food on the tables of thousands of people.
Also, many leather tanneries use best practices in their approach but there are those which don’t which is why this article and many others exist.
When it comes to best practices, usage and disposal of leather tanning agents give us a glimpse into the environmental sustainability of the industry.
In this regard, chromium is important to consider.
Chromium salts are widely used in the tanning process because they enhance crosslinking in leather creating a tough texture.
A major advantage is that they are easily accessible and affordable.
But the problem is not in their use in leather production but in disposal of by-products and wastes laced with chromium salts.
Indiscriminate disposal of chromium laced waste in the environment leads to it’s possible conversion into hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen.
In many informal set ups, leather shavings are shoved together before being disposed in surrounding landfills and rubbish dumps.
Tannery workers who don’t have the required personal protective equipment such as face masks are the ones to take the first hit.
For the most part, many of them suffer from respiratory problems resulting from continuous occupational exposure to chromium laced leather dust.
But of equal concern is the access of such toxic wastes by the surrounding communities many of which are exposed to chromium laced leather dust over long periods of time.
But perhaps the ones most in need of immediate intervention in this regard are tannery workers in informal tanneries.
Since leather tanning is an industry bound to grow in economies with a vibrant livestock industry, innovators need to plug into the space of design and manufacture of personal protective equipment that target metal-laced particulates.
Also, specialised gowns, gloves and goggles would go along way in preventing direct skin contact.
Occupational safety laws need to target these vulnerable groups of people with policies that ensure a good healthcare cover for respiratory diseases.
Industrial emmissions play a crucial role in exposing communities in this regard.
Carbon based industrial filters capable of removing leather dust particulates could be one way of protecting surrounding communities from the long term effects of hexavalent chromium.
Cutltivating of food crops on chromium polluted soils must be done only after relevant remediation measures have been put in place.
These same technologies could be used to filter water polluted with chromium salts.
Recovery of chromium salts from leather waste for reuse is also another possibility which could assist in blocking movement of the metal in the environment.
Complete replacement of chromium in leather tanning might not take place overnight.
However, research and development would help in opening up new possibilities in this industry.
Our goal must be to take care of our environment by blocking the free movement of hexavalent chromium.
That way, we will create sustainability in important industries that put food on many people’s tables such as leather tanning.