For an animal’s skin to become leather, it is put through a process known as tanning, which permanently alters its protein structure using harmful chemicals. The tanning process is considered to be within the top 10 pollution problems on the planet. The dangerous chemicals used in this process flowing outside of tanneries and into bodies of water relied upon by communities as well as having a serious impact on the workers who perform the tanning process.

Workers stand knee deep without any protective clothing in tanning water as they transfer rawhides into another tank. Photo: Daniel Lanteigne. Creative Commons BY-NC-ND.

High levels of pollution in tanneries pose a serious human rights issue. In India and Bangladesh,  workers and local residents are exposed to harmful chemicals in their natural environment, drinking and bathing water, often falling ill as a result. Health issues experienced include cancers, skin disease, child developmental issues, and mental illness. Reports by the World Health Organisation have found that around 90% of people who live and work in Hazaribagh, India and Kamrangirchar, Bangladesh die before 50 due to toxic chemicals in the air, streets and rivers. 

A young girl lives and plays next to a brook of tannery wastewater. The fumes released by the chemicals in the water can cause serious health problems. Photo: Daniel Lanteigne. Creative Commons BY-NC-ND.

Children, some as young as 11, who worked in Bangladeshi tanneries were interviewed by Human Rights Watch, they revealed being made to work in hazardous conditions, soaking hides in chemicals, using radar blades to cut tanned hides, and using dangerous machinery. In comparison to men, women and girls are paid less despite having to perform tasks men do in addition to other duties.

Business as usual in Hazaribagh. The tanneries evacuate 22,000 cubic meters of untreated liquid toxic waste daily into the Buriganga. Photo: Daniel Lanteigne. Creative Commons BY-NC-ND.

China is the largest exporter of tanned leather in the world, with ‘cancer villages’ existing caused by heavy metal pollution (arsenic, lead, mercury and chromium included) from tanneries surrounding the area.

Excessive amounts of these metals in peoples drinking water has been found to cause cancer of the skin, bladder, and lungs as well as being toxic to vital organs including the liver and kidney. The leather tanning industry severely impacts the health of surrounding communities.