How a disease from ancient Rome made its way into your sandblasted jeans

Sandblasting jeans is a common way to give blue jeans a "distressed" look, with worn spots and artfully frayed holes. But the process of sandblasting is coming under fire due to its connection with silicosis, an incurable lung disease.

Several manufactures and retail outlets are banning sandblasted jeans, but why? Let's take a look at a silicosis, occupational practices leading to the disease, and its symptoms.

How a disease from ancient Rome made its way into your sandblasted jeansS


Silicosis, a work related disease

Silicosis in an occupational lung disease, one attained from prolonged exposure to small particles of silica found in sand or quartz.

Exposure comes through regular use of pneumatic drills, stone cutting, glass manufacturing, and, in a recent application, giving jeans an intentionally distressed look though hours sandblasting.

The symptoms of silicosis include shortness of breath, persistent cough, weight loss, cracked nail beds, and, in some cases, a slight blue discoloration of the skin. A Turkish physician noted the correlation between sandblasting jeans and silicosis in a 2004 publication, beginning a movement to change modern sandblasting practices.

When small particles of silica are inhaled, they sediment in the base of the lungs and often calcify. Lack of ventilation and personal protection (workers often wear only a disposable paper mask like the one above) combined with long exposure periods lead to silicosis.

Most jeans-related sandblasting operations take place in poor areas, confinement to a small three by two foot area and long work weeks (65-70 hours), with most workers using only a disposable mouth and nose mask as protection. The silica leaves a fine layers on the body and hair as well, posing an exposure problem even after the individual leaves work.

How a disease from ancient Rome made its way into your sandblasted jeansS

The ancient Rome connection

Silicosis is not a new disease, as the Romans recognized that respiratory problems accompanied mining work. Silicosis came to the forefront in the 1930s due to the Hawks Nest incident in the United States.

Between 400 and 1,000 of the 3,000 total workers died from complication of silicosis after using pneumatic drills and explosives to bore a tunnel for hydroelectric use in West Virginia.

Thanks to increased vigilance and employee protection equipment, modern mining-related silicosis cases are practically non-existent in the United States. Strangely, silicosis is on the rise for dental technicians, with four silicosis related deaths occurring in Turkey during 2011.

Silicosis is Incurable

There is no cure for silicosis, but only a few means of symptom alleviation, as there is no way to remove the silica deposits from the lungs. Administration of antibiotics can alleviate bacterial infections accompanying silicosis and bonchoalveolar lavage can loosen deposits in the lung. After contracting silicosis, one out of three individuals dies within five years.

How a disease from ancient Rome made its way into your sandblasted jeansS

50 Recent deaths in Turkey

Although Turkey banned the practice of sandblasting jeans in 2009, over 4,000 people within the country are afflicted with silicosis and a 50th citizen died from the lung disease in February of 2012.

The practice is still common in Bangladesh, India, and China. As many as 25,000 people die from silicosis and its complications in China each year.

Several designers and retail outlets (Target, Gap, Wal-Mart, Levi, Versace, H& M) are joining together to ban the practice in lieu of safer practices like physically scraping the jeans to give a distressed look. Dolce & Gabbana is one of the few major designers still using sandblasting to manufacture jeans.

Top image by Allison Joyce at Mother Jones. Images courtesy of Ecouterre, DKNY, and the AP. Sources linked within the article.