Leather furniture – what are you buying?

22 05 2012

People like to buy leather furniture because of leather’s durability (it’s advertised to last a lifetime) – even though it demands a bit of attention to keep it looking its best.   Manufacturers also like to portray leather (perhaps because of its high price) as conveying luxury and sophistication.

Leather has been used practically forever –  ancient peoples used materials that were available, like bark and plant tannins, alum, earth minerals, fish oils, animal brains, lime and smoke to preserve animal skins.  The natural tanning process takes a long time – from 1 to 12 months.  It often also relies on physical manipulation.

Today’s leather is a far cry from  early leathers because horribly toxic synthetic chemicals have replaced the older tanning chemicals (usually in the interest of time – chrome tanning takes only a fraction of the time as does “natural” tanning); modern leather tanneries are frighteningly toxic and the animal husbandry aspect is sad and sickening. There are a very few ethical tanneries, but so far I can count them on one hand.  [1]

Let’s take a look at what that leather on your sofa means to us today.

Many people think that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, and that buying leather does not increase the number of animals slaughtered.  But in the case of some animals, the meat is the by product – on ostrich farms, the leather account for 80% of the dead animal’s value.[2]  Some leather – made from more exotic animals like kangaroos, zebras, seals, snakes, lizards and even sharks – are either raised or hunted specifically for their skins. [3] Regardless of how you define it, the skin is not a “leftover” since processing it as leather accounts for about 10% of the slaughtered animal’s overall value,[4] generating significant profits for both factory farms and the leather trade itself.  In fact, without the lucrative sale of animal skins for leather, factory farms would not even be able to turn a profit by selling meat alone. Ultimately, buying leather products subsidizes factory farms while providing financial incentive for them to produce more leather.

Most leather comes from cattle who are slaughtered for meat, worn-out dairy cows who no longer produce enough milk to be profitable, and veal calves whose soft skin is particularly valuable.  These animals often suffer in many ways that are detailed on various websites (such as Liberation BC: Speaking out for Animals and PETA) – it is such a gut wrenching, gruesome story that I can’t even bring myself to talk specifics.

Let’s face it – leather is the skin of a dead animal.  It is, by nature, meant to decompose.  What do you think has to be done to that skin so it doesn’t decompose?

After 75 years at the bottom of the Atlantic, few items aboard the R.M.S. Titanic had survived the ravages of saltwater.  But leather items hadn’t rotted away because their chrome tanning prevented their decay.[5]

The global leather industry is composed of three sectors of activity: animal husbandry and slaughter, tanning, and product manufacturing. Tanning is the stage in which raw leather is processed and made more durable so that it doesn’t decompose in your living room. Tanning consists of two major processes:

  1. Wet blue production (so called because the semi-finished hide is given a chrome bath which imparts a blusih tint).  This process involves removing unwanted substances (salt, flesh, hair, and grease) from a rawhide (by soaking in a bath of lime and sodium sulfide to dissolve hair and flesh), trimming it, treating it to impart the desired grain and stretch, and finally soaking it in a chrome bath to prevent decomposition.  This step is far more polluting than finishing, generating 90% of the water pollution associated with leather tanning.[6]
  2. Finishing – Finishing involves splitting, shaving, re-tanning, and dying the wet blue.

Often leather is advertised as being “aniline dyed”.  That means the leather is dyed for color without any pigments applied.  These dyes enhance the subtle variations of each hide and the leather does not lose any structure or grain pattern.  It is often considered to be of a higher quality than other types of dyed leather because aniline dyed leathers develop a  distinctive patina over time. Only premium hides with the most pleasing color and texture are selected for this category, less than 5% of all upholstery hides in the world.

Semi-aniline, also referred to as “Aniline Plus”,  is also advertised.  These leathers are first dyed in the penetrating aniline dyes. Then a topcoat is applied to even out the color of the hide surface. The topcoat also serves to create fading- and soil-resistant pieces.  They retain a great amount of the softness of aniline dyed hides because the natural top grain is left intact. A much larger proportion of the worldwide hide supply is suitable for this class of leather and as a result they are more moderately priced than pure aniline dyed hides.

So now we come to the part about the problems with using leather – you knew it was coming.

According to the results of a three year study to address health impacts of pollution from the Blacksmith Institute, which works to solve pollution problems in the developing world,  the tanning of leather is in the top 10 of the world’s worst pollution threats,  at #5, directly affecting more than 1.8 milllion people.[7]

Blacksmith’s Bret Ericson, who managed the three-year project, says:  “These are not large-scale, multinational corporations that are responsible for this pollution. Typically, it’s low income, small-scale industries who have no emissions controls,” often because these outdated industries remain unregulated.

Because of the acknowledged hazards of leather production, the process is being discontinued in most European countries and the U.S., and operations are moving overseas.   Because of the relatively inexpensive cost of labor and materials, over half the world’s tanning activity occurs in low- and middle-income countries.  Leather tanneries are highly concentrated in Nepal, Bangladesh and India.  Bangladesh Tanners Association President M. Harun Chowdhury said, “Most of the European countries and USA are discontinuing leather processing, as [the] leather industry is an environmentally hazardous one.”[8]

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. Regulations governing tannery pollution have been on the books for decades in countries such as Mexico. Among other things, they require tanneries to register with environmental authorities, install sedimentation tanks and water gauges, handle most solid wastes as hazardous materials, and— most important—pretreat wastewater so that daily concentrations of various pollutants do not exceed set standards. For the most part, however, these regulations are simply not enforced.[9]  One of the reasons mentioned for this, cited by Allen Blackman,  is that tanneries are often a mainstay of the local economy and therefore enjoy considerable political power.

So today Hazaribag, Dhaka, home to many leather tanneries,  the  once  pleasant, semi-rural district in the Bangladeshi capital, is now a wasteland of toxic swamps, garbage landfills and mountains of decomposing leather scraps, surrounded by slums where tannery workers live.  Piles of smouldering trash line the banks of the nearby Buriganga, which is classified as a “dead” river after it hits Hazaribag as pollution from the tanneries has made it impossible for any fish or plantlife to survive.

Every day, the tanneries collectively dump 22,000 cubic litres of toxic waste, including cancer-causing chromium, into the Buriganga — Dhaka’s main river and a key water supply — according to the ministry of environment.

More than 90 percent of the tannery workers suffer from some kind of disease — from asthma to cancer — due to chemical exposure, according to a 2008 survey by SEHD, a local charity, with local residents being almost as badly affected.[10]

This is The Ecologist Film Unit’s Jim Wickens take on what the situation is in Dhaka:

What chemicals are used to create such terrible pollution?

In all, around 250 chemicals are used in tanning. Skins are transferred from vat to vat, soaked and treated and dyed.   Chemicals include alcohol, coal tar , sodium sulfate, sulfuric acid, chlorinated phenols (e.g. 3,5-dichlorophenol), chromium (trivalent and hexavalent), azo dyes, cadmium, cobalt, copper, antimony, cyanide, barium, lead, selenium, mercury, zinc,  polychlorinated biphenyels (PCBs), nickel, formaldehyde and pesticide residues.[11]  At the same time, toxic gases like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and carcinogenic arylamines are emitted into the air. The smell of a tannery is the most horrifyingly putrid smell on earth.

Groundwater near tanneries has been found with highly elevated levels of a variety of toxic substances. The Regis Tanning Co., Inc., operated a tanning facility from the early 1950s until 1972 in New Hampshire. But more than 20 years after it closed down, groundwater samples collected in the area revealed that arsenic, chromium, lead, and zinc were all still present—likely because of wastes disposed of on the property—while samples taken from nearby Lamprey River and its wetlands indicated the presence of cyanide, chromium, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).[12]

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the incidence of leukemia among residents near one tannery in Kentucky was five times the national average.[13]

Arsenic, a common tannery chemical, has long been associated with lung cancer in workers who are exposed to it on a regular basis. Several studies have established links between sinus and lung cancer and the chromium used in tanning. [14] Studies of leather-tannery workers in Sweden and Italy found cancer risks “between 20% and 50% above [those] expected.” [15]

And that aniline dye that is often advertised as non toxic:  not according to these sources:  Aniline is toxic by inhalation of the vapour.   [16] The International Agency for Research on Cancer(IARC) lists it in Group 3  (not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans) due to the limited and contradictory data available.  It is linked to bladder cancer.[17]

What about vegetable-tanning, which is sometimes touted as an environmentally-friendly alternative to chrome-tanning? Vegetable-tanning is actually only different from chrome-based in one way: it uses vegetable dyes rather than, perhaps, aniline dyes, to give the leather a “more subtle, muted colour.”[18]The preparation of the skin for tanning is the same, and though vegetable-tanning eliminates the toxins produced during the process of chrome-tanning, it also has its limits: being stiffer and firmer than chrome-tanned leather, it can be used for saddles, belts,  and leather carving, but often not for shoes, coats, or anything that requires much flexibility. Additionally, when exposed to water and allowed to dry, it can discolour and shrink, becoming brittle.

As mentioned in the first footnote above, there are a few companies that are trying to transform the industry and to educate consumers about leather, such as Organic Leather in California.  They seek to “return reverence to the practice of working with leather…to pay homage to the tribal peoples of our world and to encourage respect for the quality of the animals’ lives, from the way they are raised to the way they die…(and) to make sure that no part of the animal already being harvested goes to waste.  Moreover, we are strongly concerned with the chemicals used in the tanning and dyeing process and their effects on the natural environment and the health of both workers and customers.”


[1] Organic Leather, in California,  is trying to create high-quality and stylish leather while working to transform the industry and educate consumers.  See their white paper: http://www.organicleather.com/organic_leather_white_paper.pdf

[2] Kate Carter, Don’t Hide from the Truth, Guardian.co.uk, 27 Aug. 2008

[3] Leather Made From different animals, Leather Supreme, May 13, 2008 AND “Animals Abused and Killed for their Skins”, PETA media center, 2010.

[5] Davis, John, “Method for safer leather tanning published by Texas Tech researchers”, Texas Tech Today, November 2007.

[6] Blackman, Allen, “Adoption of Clean Leather-Tanning Technologies in Mexico”, discussion paper, Resources for the Future, August 2005

[8] Jasim Uddin Khan, “Local Tanners Eye Bright Prospect as US, EU Quit Leather Processing,” The Daily Star 20 Dec 2007.

[9] Blackman, Allen, “Adoption of Clean Leather-Tanning Technologies in Mexico”, discussion paper, Resrouces for the Future, August 2005

[10] Barton, Cat, “Workers pay high price at Bangladesh tanneries”, AFP, Feb. 2011

[11] Ibid.

[12] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Regis Tannery,” Waste Site Cleanup and Reuse in New England 9 Aug. 2006.

[13] Richard E. Sclove et al., Community-Based Research in the United States (Amherst: The Loka Institute, 1998) 52.

[14] Richard B. Hayes, “The Carcinogenicity of Metals in Humans,” Cancer Causes and Control 8 (1997): 371-85.

[15] France Labrèche, Occupations and Breast Cancer: Evaluation of Associations Between Breast Cancer and Workplace Exposures (Montréal: McGill University, 1997).

[16] Muir, GD (ed.) 1971, Hazards in the Chemical Laboratory, The Royal Institute of Chemistry, London.

[17] http://www.pathologyoutlines.com/topic/bladderurothelialinvasivegen.html  AND Carreon, Tania, et al, “Increased bladder cancer risk among workers exposed to o-toluidine and aniline: a reanalysis”, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2010; 67:348-350

[18] Elizabeth Olsen, Can Leather Be Eco-Friendly…Ever?, Ecouterre, 19 Oct. 2009






Outdoor fabrics

25 03 2012

We love being outdoors. I’ve been told that the most popular outdoor activity in the U.S.A is picnicking.  I would think barbeque must be a close second.  So we love fabrics that we can use outdoors  – you know the ones that resist fading, are stain resistant and can be cleaned with mild soap and water?  They don’t fade or degrade.  Perfect!

Let’s look at America’s most popular outdoor fabric, Sunbrella, which their website claims is recognized as “a fabric with a conscience”, because, as they claim:

  • all Sunbrella fabrics are fully recyclable;
  • they require no dyeing that produces wastewater;
  • and they have received the GREENGUARD and Skin Cancer Foundation certifications.

Before we show why we think these are all claims which exemplify different facets of what Terra Choice calls the “Six Sins of Greenwashing”, let’s first look at the stuff Sunbrella is made of.

Sunbrella is, as their website says, a 100% solution dyed acrylic fabric.   Solution dyeing is simply mixing the dyestuff into the melted polymer.  So unlike dyeing that penetrates a fiber,  this method means that the color is inherent in the fiber, and there is no dye or water waste.  This is a good method of dyeing – but that’s not the issue  – the real issue is what the fabrics are made of.

The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide).   Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly.  It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere – because the burning of acrylic releases fumes of hydrogen cyanide and oxides of nitrogen.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that there is inadequate evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of acrylonitrile, but classified it as a Class 2B carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic).   Acrylonitrile increases cancer in high dose tests in male and female rats and mice. (1)    A recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine  found that women who work in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population.(2)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. It is considered a group 7 plastic among recycled plastics and is not collected for recycling in most communities. Large pieces can be reformed into other useful objects if they have not suffered too much stress, crazing, or cracking, but this accounts for only a very small portion of the acrylic plastic waste. In a landfill, acrylic plastics, like many other plastics, are not readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

Now that you know what Sunbrella’s made of, let’s look at their claims:

  • All Sunbrella fabrics are fully recyclable – If you check the website, Sunbrella has a proprietary recycling program, which means they will pick up your old Sunbrella.  Why do they do this?  Because the local municipalities do not accept acrylic fabric nor do most plastic recycling companies.  It’s admirable that Sunbrella has put this program into place, but we don’t really know that they actually re-purpose the old fabric rather than simply cart it to the landfill, do we?
  • Sunbrella fabrics require no dyeing that produces wastewater  – because it’s solution dyed, so therefore this is, well if not exactly a red herring, certainly irrelevant to the fact that the fabric is made from acrylic.
  • Sunbrella fabrics have received the GREENGUARD and Skin Cancer Foundation certifications.
    • Sunbrella fabrics have been certified by GreenGuard Children and Schools because the chemicals used in acrylic production are bound in the polymer – in other words, they do not evaporate. So Sunbrella fabrics do not contribute to poor air quality, (you won’t be breathing them in), but there is no guarantee that you won’t absorb them through your skin. And you would be supporting the production of more acrylic, the production of which is not a pretty thing.
    • With regard to the Skin Cancer Foundation – the certification seems to be based on the fact that Sunbrella fabrics block the sun, which prevents skin cancer, rather than anything inherently beneficial in the fabric itself – because the certification is not valid for any Sunbrella fabric which is sheer or transparent.  So another red herring.

Now that you know what Sunbrella is made of, do you really want convenience at such a great cost?


(1) Hagman, L, “How confident can we be that acrylonitrile is not a human carcinogen?”, Scandanavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, 2001;27(1):1-4 .

[2] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract) SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321





Formaldehyde in your fabrics

4 01 2011

In January 2009, new blue uniforms were issued to Transportation Security Administration officers at hundreds of airports nationwide. [1] The new uniforms – besides giving officers a snazzy new look – also gave them  skin rashes, bloody noses, lightheadedness, red eyes, and swollen and cracked lips, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing the officers.  “We’re hearing from hundreds of TSOs that this is an issue,” said Emily Ryan, a spokeswoman for the union.

The American Federation of Government Employees blames formaldehyde. 

In  2008, an Ohio woman filed suit against Victoria’s Secret, alleging she became “utterly sick” after wearing her new bra.  In her lawsuit, the plaintiff said the rash she suffered was “red hot to the touch, burning and itching.”   As more people came forth (600 to be exact)  claiming horrific skin reactions (and permanent scarring to some) as a result of wearing Victoria Secret’s bras, lawsuits were filed in Florida and New York – after the lawyers found formaldehyde in the bras.

For years the textile industry has been using finishes on fabric that prevents wrinkling – usually a formaldehyde resin.   Fabrics are treated with urea-formaldehyde resins to give them all sorts of easy care properties such as:

  • Permanent press / durable press
  • Anti-cling, anti-static, anti-wrinkle, and anti-shrink (especially shrink proof wool)
  • Waterproofing and stain resistance (especially for suede and chamois)
  • Perspiration proof
  • Moth proof
  • Mildew resistant
  • Color-fast

That’s why you can find retailers like Nordstrom selling “wrinkle-free finish” dress shirts and L.L. Bean selling chinos that are “great right out of the dryer.”  And we’ve been snapping them up, because who doesn’t want to ditch the ironing?

According to the American Contact Dermatitis Society, rayon, blended cotton, corduroy, wrinkle-resistant 100% cotton, and any synthetic blended polymer are likely to have been treated with formaldehyde resins. The types of resins used include urea-formaldehyde, melamine-formaldehyde and phenol-formaldehyde.[2] Manufacturers often “hide” the word “formaldehyde” under daunting chemical names.  These include:

  • Formalin
  • Methanal
  • Methyl aldehyde
  • Methylene oxide
  • Morbicid acid
  • Oxymethylene

Not only is formaldehyde itself used,  but also formaldehyde-releasing preservatives. Some of these are known by the following names:

  • Quaternium-15
  • 2-bromo-2nitropropane-1,3-diol
  • imidazolidinyl urea
  • diazolidinyl urea

Formaldehyde is another one of those chemicals that just isn’t good for humans.  Long known as the Embalmer’s Friend for its uses in funeral homes and high school biology labs, formaldehyde effects depend upon the intensity and length of the exposure and the sensitivity of the individual to the chemical. The most common means of exposure is by breathing air containing off-gassed formaldehyde fumes, but it is also easily absorbed through the skin.  Increases in temperature (hot days, ironing coated textiles) and increased humidity both increase the release of formaldehyde from coated textiles.

Besides being associated with watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes and throat, nausea, difficulty in breathing, coughing, some pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs),  asthma attacks, chest tightness, headaches, and general fatigue,  as well as the rashes and other illnesses such as reported by the TSA officers, formaldehyde is associated with more severe health issues.  For example, it could cause nervous system damage by its known ability to react with and form cross-linking with proteins, DNA and unsaturated fatty acids.13 These same mechanisms could cause damage to virtually any cell in the body, since all cells contain these substances.  Formaldehyde can react with the nerve protein (neuroamines) and nerve transmitters (e.g., catecholamines), which could impair normal nervous system function and cause endocrine disruption. [3]

Medical studies have linked formaldehyde exposure with nasal cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.  Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have found formaldehyde to be a probable human carcinogen and workers with high or prolonged exposure to formaldehyde to be at an increased risk for leukemia (particularly myeloid leukemia)  and brain cancer. Read the National Cancer Institute’s factsheet here.

Formaldehyde is one of about two dozen chemical toxins commonly found in homes and wardrobes that are believed by doctors to contribute to Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). Chemical sensitivities are becoming a growing health problem in the U.S. as the persistent exposure to harsh and toxic chemicals grows. One of the signs of increasing chemical sensitivities is the rise of contact dermatitis caused by formaldehyde resins and other chemicals used in textile finishes. Repeated exposure to even low levels of formaldehyde can create a condition called “sensitization” where the individual becomes very sensitive to the effects of formaldehyde and then even low levels of formaldehyde can cause an “allergic” reaction, such as those suffered by the TSA workers.

Countries such as Austria, Finland, Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Japan have national legislation restricting the presence of formaldehyde in textile products.  But in the United States, formaldehyde levels in fabric is not regulated.   Nor does any government agency require manufacturers to disclose the use of the chemical on labels.  Because it’s used on the fabric, it can show up on any product made from fabric, such as clothing.  And it can show up in any room of the house – in the sheets and pillows on the bed.  In drapery hanging in the living room.  The upholstery on the sofa.  Even in the baseball cap hanging by the door.

“From a consumer perspective, you are very much in the dark in terms of what (fabric or) clothing is treated with,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. “In many ways, you’re in the hands of the industry and those who are manufacturing our fabrics. And we are trusting them to ensure they are using the safest materials and additives.” [4]

“The textile industry for years has been telling dermatologists that they aren’t using the formaldehyde resins anymore, or the ones they use have low levels,” said Dr. Joseph F. Fowler, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Louisville. “Yet despite that, we have been continually seeing patients who are allergic to formaldehyde and have a pattern of dermatitis on their body that tells us this is certainly related to clothing.”

Often it’s suggested that washing the fabric will get rid of the formaldehyde.  But think about it:  why would a manufacturer put in a wrinkle resistant finish that washes out?  If that were the case, your permanent press shirts and sheets would suddenly (after a washing or two) need to be ironed.  Do you find that to be the case?  Manufacturers work long and hard to make sure these finishes do NOT wash out.  At least one study has found that there is  no significant reduction in the amount of formaldehyde after two washings. (5)

So we can add formaldehyde to the list of chemicals which surround us, exposing us at perhaps very low levels for many years.  What this low level exposure is doing to us has yet to be determined.


[1] “New TSA Unifroms Trigger a Rash of Complaints (Formaldehyde)”, The Washington Post, January 5, 2009, Steve Vogel.

[2] Berrens, L. etal., “Free formaldehyde in textiles in relation to formalin contact sensitivity”

[3] Thrasher JD etal., “Immune activation and autoantibodies in humans with long-term inhalation exposure to formaldehyde,” Archive Env. Health, 45: 217-223, 1990.

[4] “When Wrinkle-Free Clothing Also Means Formaldehyde Fumes”, New York Times, Tara Siegel Bernard, December 10, 2010

(5)  Rao S, Shenoy SD, Davis S, Nayak S.,  “Detection of formaldehyde in textiles by chromotropic acid method”. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2004;70:342-4.