In an op-ed in the New York Times Dan Fagin remarks on the history and present of potentially carcinogenic dyes in clothing:
The reality of 21st-century globalism, however, is that none of us can pretend that by pushing the chemical industry out of our communities we have stopped enabling its dangerous practices. The industry jobs that started in Basel, and then migrated to Cincinnati and Toms River, are now in Shanxi Province and other coal-rich areas of China. BASF alone now owns or invests in 45 Chinese ventures. Meanwhile, hundreds of smaller companies like the Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group, whose Changzhi factory was the source of last week’s leak, are busy turning coal into aniline and a host of other chemical products.
Business is booming. If you don’t believe me, head over to the Ocean County Mall in Toms River, where you can get a pair of jeans dyed just the right shade of faded blue, thanks to aniline-based indigo dye. They’re made in China, and they’re cheap — if you don’t count the long-term cost.
There’s pretty strong evidence of the dangers of aniline dyes to dye workers going back 150 years. Despite the alarmist tone of the op-ed, there is little comparable evidence suggesting that garments dyed with modern aniline dyes are hazardous to their wearers. The older literature in particular doesn’t distinguish between dermatitis induced by the dyes and dermatitis produced by the arsenic used in the production of the dyes.
There’s a big difference between the situation today and that of 150 years ago. The most important one is that it was 150 years ago. The dangers of aniline dyes to dye-workers was not known. They are now.
The other is that China does not have a robust system of civil law. Even 150 years ago Germany, France, and other European countries did. That’s why I’m skeptical of moving our dirty industries to China. And why I avoid wearing, sleeping on, or eating anything made in China or made with ingredients that were made in China. To be honest, it’s darned hard.
What’s the take-away from this op-ed? That we shouldn’t buy clothing made in China? That European companies shouldn’t own factories in China? That WTO membership should require adhering to basic safety standards for workers? Or that China needs a robust system of civil law?