When viscose rayon was introduced more than a century, it was hailed as kind of chemical miracle. Viscose could be used to manufacture not only clothes, but a range of objects including tires, cellophane, and even kitchen sponges. Its silky texture and lower price point made it appealing to clothing manufacturers and consumers.
But, as Paul Blanc explains in his book, Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon, viscose rayon is extremely dangerous to those who manufacture it.
Blanc, who is a professor of medicine at the University of California San Fransisco, shows how the manufacturing of viscose rayon resulted in the early deaths of many industry workers over many decades. He compares its detrimental effects to those of asbestos, lead, and mercury.
The problem with viscose manufacturing lies in carbon disulfide. Viscose is made by taking wood pulp or cellulose, mixing it up, and then adding carbon disulfide. Carbon disulfide is a very toxic molecule that attacks both the body and the mind.
“It was pretty easy to recognize the toxic effects early on because it makes workers insane. They found that about 30 per cent of the workers that they investigated showed signs of serious poisoning,” Blanc told CBC Radio.
A famous rubber factory had to install bars on the second story windows, because of the number of factory workers who tried to jump to their deaths.
While corporations and manufacturers were aware of the deadly effects, which include premature heart attacks, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, and eye damage, they were more motivated by profit than worker safety.
Today, viscose rayon is touted as an environmentally friendly option, because it’s made from cellulose rather than petroleum. But even there, Paul notes, carbon disulfide requires natural gas or coal to manufacture it.
Since viscose rayon garments are safe for consumers, they’re not outraged by the deaths of poor factory workers in countries like India, China, and Indonesia, who continue to suffer from its effects today.
Blanc cites cupro rayon as being a better alternative, but he is more concerned with consumers acquiring more knowledge to make better informed decisions.