What has real-time silica monitoring technology got to do with jeans?

The short answer is a lot – but read on to find out why.

We are talking here about the trendy, sometimes skinny, but definitely distressed, smooth and comfortable jeans that are likely to be worn by every third student in any college or university campus in the UK, Australia or the US today.

The problem

The process of sandblasting is a simple one, a compressor, a hose and basic sand is all that is needed to blast over the denim and create a smooth, distressed look. This can be performed manually, or mechanically, but is the same process in either application.

The problem lies with the type of sand used.

In regulated counties, the use of abrasives that contain more than 1% free silica has long since been banned, as whilst sandblasting clothes is a relatively new practice, sandblasting has been used commonly in the mining and building industries for several decades in western societies. Harmful silica dust with high levels of Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) – the dangerous particulates that cause Silicosis – was identified relatively early in these industries, and as such, the UK banned the use of silica sand being used in sandblasting back in 1950. The European Economic Community banned its use in 1966, the US in 1974, and Sweden later still in 1992.

Unregulated countries such as Turkey, Syria, Bangladesh, Mexico, India and Indonesia were not subject to these restrictions, so clothing manufacturers moved to these and other countries in South East Asia and North Africa, in order to continue this, and other cheap, effective, but dangerous practices.

Silvana Cappuccio, a health and safety expert at the International Textile Garment & Leather Workers’ Federation, states that production “tends to move to regions where labour is cheap and legislation is weaker.


The scale of the problem

A four-year medical follow up study on denim sandblasters across Turkey, Brazil, China and Japan from 2007 to 2011 made some bleak observations:

  • Denim sandblasters are at a high risk of silicosis.
  • Patients with silicosis because of denim sandblasting exhibit rapid disease progression,
    and many of the complications associated with silicosis, including death, appear to
    be unavoidable.
  • Among the 145 former sandblasters studied in 2007, 83 were re-assessed in 2011.
    In the four-year follow-up period, nine (6.2%) had died at a mean age of 24 years.
  • Of the 74 living sandblasters available for re-examination, the prevalence of silicosis
    increased from 55.4% to 95.9%, regardless of age, gender or whether they were smokers.
  • The affect was most prominent in workers that slept within the workplace.

Perhaps the most shocking observation was the final conclusion to the study, which stated outright: “almost all former denim sandblasters may develop silicosis, despite short exposures and latency.”

This study, labelled silicosis as ‘inevitable’ in former sandblasters, which really does expose the problem as a truly global issue.

What has been done about it?

Banning the use of silica-sand, and sandblasting jeans in general has been enforced in most countries now, following a very damning report by a doctor in Turkey in 2004. The report reached the Turkish government who eventually banned the process five years later in 2009. From this, a Clean Clothing movement began, led by the Fair Trade Center that investigated 17 clothing brands in 2010, leading to all 17 brands banning the sandblasting of denim by 2011, and a world awareness with the BBC and various ethical clothing enthusiasts getting on board with the Clean Clothes Campaign, that has not only gone viral but has got the attention of a global audience.

As late as 2019 however, there has been some evidence that China is still sandblasting jeans illegally far down the supply chain, hidden from the end buyer. So, the bottom line is, you have no real way of knowing if the faded, comfortable, low-cost jeans we buy off the shelf today in any high-street store not part of the 2010 study, has been subject to an ethical manufacturing process.

The uncomfortable truth maybe that we have helped a foreign worker contract silicosis – however indirectly.

What has all this got to do with Trolex?

Eradicating silica dust from unsafe sandblasting practices in jeans manufacturing, is a good first step, but silica dust is still unavoidable in other industries.

Quarrying, construction and the manufacturing of stone, bricks and most mining industries will always release some silica dust particulates in the air, and the efforts have to be on the controls that need to be put in place to avoid workers ingesting respirable crystalline silica (RCS), which leads to silicosis.

The UK, US and Australia are making real headway in tackling this problem, but the main issue that has emerged throughout all the research, has been the lack of any real-time data.

Monitoring silica dust, it not an easy process, and this is why Trolex have spent the last eight years developing a way to do just this, in real time, to protect the workers on site every day, and throughout the day. New laser technology has been developed in the Air XS Silica Monitor, that will soon be available to monitor RCS in this way. Providing more information about where silica is, when and how much is produced, which then gives employers the opportunity to protect their staff clearly, using controls such as better ventilation and PPE usage where it’s needed most on site. This knowledge undoubtedly makes a difference, and ultimately helps the global vision and mission to prevent RCS overexposure for good, saving countless lives.

Jeans, it seems, have helped to open up the global conversation and war on silicosis, so they really do have a great deal to do with silica, and in turn, Trolex.

To find out more about what we are doing about reduces instances of occupational silicosis, use the contact form to get in touch with one of our experts today.