Mortality Among Retired Fur Workers: Dyers, Dressers (Tanners) and Service Workers
Though a great deal of literature has been written about the hazards of slaughterhouse work, the long term health impacts of other kinds of “animal processing” jobs are not as well known. This article looks at the health and mortality of workers in the fur industry, and shows that employment involving the dyes and chemicals used in the tanning process may increase mortality or the prevalence of certain diseases. The findings show that fur dressers had much higher than normal exposure to certain chemicals that can lead to an increase in deaths from lung cancer.
Fur is often marketed as a “natural” and “sustainable” product, but the process of making fur garments involves the use of a variety of chemicals that are destructive to the environment and human health. In an effort to better understand the impact on human health of exposure to these chemicals during fur processing, researchers conducted a “cohort mortality study of union-pensioned fur dyers, fur dressers, and fur service workers.” Researchers estimate that the fur industry in the U.S. employs about 10,000 workers, though the processing industry is divided into three different sectors. “Fur dressers flesh and tan all skins before the furs are dyed. Fur service workers grade, match, and bale raw and dressed furs; and fur dyers color or tint the furs with natural or synthetic dyes. Of these categories, both fur dyers and fur dressers are believed to have had considerable exposure to potential carcinogens.” They looked at the health of pensioned fur workers, who had been active union members for 20 continuous years, and compared their findings to the health of average NYC males of the same age.
Their study found some troubling and surprising results. Though “objective quantitative measurements of dye exposure were not available,” historical accounts of the industry indicate that worker contact with dyes and dyed furs was commonplace. Despite this seemingly risky behavior, the findings show that retired fur dyers appeared to be overall healthier than the men of NYC in general across various measurements. However, among fur dressers, there was a “significantly increased mortality from cardiovascular disease,” which the researchers said was an “unexpected finding.” The study notes that this increased mortality could be due to a variety of factors, but especially the chromium content of various chemicals used in the process.
The findings of this study give a broader understanding of the fur industry overall, and allow advocates to put together a more holistic message in opposition to the cruel trade. Though this paper does not examine any aspects of animal ethics related to fur, the information contained within shows that, not only is fur production far from natural, it is actively damaging the health of the people who work to produce it. This type of information is invaluable for animal advocates who may not be able to reach some audiences with a strictly animal rights message.
A retrospective cohort mortality study was conducted on 807 fur dyers, fur dressers (tanners), and fur service workers who were pensioned between 1952 and 1977 by the Fur, Leather and Machine Workers Union of New York City. Workplace exposures of fur workers varied with job category. Dyers were exposed to oxidative dyes used in commercial hair dyes; dressers and service workers were exposed to tanning chemicals. In a comparison with the New York City population, no significant increases in mortality were observed among the fur dyers. Among fur dressers, mortality from all malignant neoplasms [standardized mortality ratio (SMR) 151) and lung cancer (SMR 232) was significantly elevated, as was mortality from cardiovascular disease (SMR 126) among fur service workers. When examined by ethnic origin, the elevated SMR values and directly age-adjusted rate ratios suggested that foreign-born fur dressers and eastern European-born fur workers experienced the highest risks for lung and colorectal cancers, respectively. These data support previous findings of increased mortality from colorectal cancer in the foreign-born population of the United States and suggest a possible occupational etiology for the observed lung cancer excess.