Al-Masry Al-Youm – Like all Egyptians, one heads to the market to buy clothes, especially during sale seasons, festive holidays or when the scholastic year starts. Everyone does the same thing: we window-shop and follow the latest fashion. We like the bright colors, and each of us searches for the quality that is suitable for his/her taste, and does not cost a bundle. You buy from downtown, from shabby kiosks or elitist malls in upscale neighborhoods. But most of us do not look at the tag sewed with the garment’s lining showing more details than just the brand name, the “Made in China”, or “100% fancy Egyptian Cotton”.
What is the difference between a designer shirt you can buy from shops in Cairo, and a shirt a European may buy in his country? To answer this question, let us follow together the story behind shirts, and investigate the safety of every thread that touches our body to cover it, but may transfer to it something that is more dangerous. Once upon a time, Rajat Kumar, the Indian specialist in garment health and environmental safety tests, spoke about how the world started to be interested in the type of dyes used in children’s toys and garments in particular. The reason behind this interest is an incident that took place in 200, that left authorities in the US totally perplexed. In one school in Florida, health supervisors noticed the sudden death of five children within a two-month period. After investigating, doctors found out that the children played with toys which were manufactured using lead and other prohibited dyes. These children were putting the toys in their mouths. Since then, and as a result of similar incidents, the world started taking more seriously the use of dyes and materials which include heavy metals in children’s toys and clothes. But in third world countries, including Egypt, Rajat says that the issue is still not given sufficient attention.
In order to better clarify the picture, the Indian expert took us on a short virtual tour of the Internet, to examine the European standards for garments, and how they impose strict terms and criteria according to which no company can export to the western consumer. They can only export after the goods pass through environmental and health controls that are very accurate and stringent, examining the type and nature of materials used in dying and preparation, and the permissible concentration levels in case of carcinogenic materials. The governments of these countries impose more stringent controls if the textiles entering their countries are to become part of children’s garments. All these measures are for protecting their citizens from a danger that may threaten their safety because of the clothes they wear.
This care is restricted in our countries, until this moment on research centers. One day in Egypt, before the revolution of January 25, the National Center for Research held an international scientific conference to discuss a working paper on the environmental and health obligations towards the consumer. It recommended imposing standards and criteria that achieve protection for the public.
The conference was not attended by a noticeable number of garment manufacturers in Egypt, perhaps because the problem of scientific research is detached from the Industry. But for the media, the research that addressed garment dying and preparation was of utmost importance, and for the first time, purely scientific terms started to reach our ears and had a large effect on our personal safety. Talk during the conference revolved around what is called Azo-Dyes. A quick trip on the famous Google search engine started to reveal the threads.
The European Union’s official website refers to the necessity of caution in dealing with this type of dyes. According to the scientific section of the website, many research works indicate that these dyes may cause cancer. In order to reach a conclusive and scientific opinion from the European Union, we sent an official letter through the Commission’s office in Cairo, requesting a final. This is the answer we got in two days?
“The use of Azo dyes is actually prohibited since 2002, according to directives issued by the European Union published in the Union’s Official Gazette Number EC/2002/61 dated July 2002, regarding the controls on marketing and using the hazardous compounds of Azo Dyes.” These lines provided the answer that ended any suspicions regarding Europe’s dealing with dyes used in garments.
The document emphasizes the commitment of the European Union to provide the highest standards of safety for its citizens, and hence took a decision, based on the Union’s keenness to protect its citizens from any health hazards, in line with the Union’s directives to promote awareness regarding consumers in internal markets. The use of 22 types of Azo dyes was prohibited in garments that touch the skin, due to its content of Amino acids that cause cancer. The use of the rest of the types of these dyes is permissible at a maximum concentration level of 30 particles in a million, and in some cases, at 70 particles in a million in each dye basin.
This was the official response of the European Union, so what is the situation in Egypt?
Egypt never witnessed a problem that is worse than that of coordination among its technical and consumer control systems. At a time when the Ministry of Environment Manual recommends reducing pollution in the textile industry by refraining to use Azo dyes from Benzamine completely, based on the United Nations Program for Clean Production for the worsted industry, the manual also stresses the need to refrain from using Azo dyes under reduction conditions because they have carcinogenic results. Yet our standard specifications for worsted industries are far from the regulation of trading in these materials in ready garments factories. There is no mention of these dyes and their detrimental effects on health when used without controls.
This contradiction is explained by Dr. Hani Barakat, the President of the Public Commission for Specifications and Quality, which is responsible for setting the standards and safety levels in Egyptian industries. The academician admits that there are gaps in standard specifications in many industries, especially in textile industries. He adds: “We know that there are prohibited materials that cause cancer, being used in some textile industries in Egypt. The reason is that standards for garments and textiles were not developed since the first standard for garments was issued in 1957.”
Regarding the nature of the prohibited materials used in dying textiles in Egypt, Dr. Barakat says: “Formaldehyde and some dyes that contain Amino acids are called Azo dyes. Some heavy metals, such as Chrome, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury represent a hazard to the consumer when wearing these garments.”
He adds: “Statistics indicate that continued and lengthy exposure to textiles dyed with Azo dyes cause cancerous lesions of the skin.”
Despite the admission of the Commission president of the presence of the problem, he emphasized that work is underway to prepare and issue the comprehensive standard specification according to the United States specification that prohibit the use or trade in hazardous materials internationally in the garment industry. Factories operating in the field of textiles, totaling about five thousand factories in Egypt, will be compelled to comply with the specification voluntarily until the new specification becomes mandatory.”
We left the office of the Specifications Commission president, with a nagging question in our heads: “Do Egyptian factories comply at present, even voluntarily, with the controls on using dyes?” Answering this question required trips to three dyeing factories in various industrial cities in Egypt.
On the 10th of Ramadan, we visited a dyeing plant that has the Eco-Text certification issued by the European Union for companies which comply with environmental standards. Amin Abbas, the authorized member of the dyeing plant that dedicates all its production to export explained the mechanism through which international compliance certificates in textiles in public health work. He said: “the smallest error in mixing the ratios of diluting dyes in water may result in the accumulation of hazardous materials in the textile, which affects the consumer’s health. Hence, the European Union and the United Nations assign consulting firms that inspect textile samples accurately, recording the ratio of dyes used in each cloth, compared to international standards.”
Abbas accompanied us on a tour of the dyeing plant, and gave us a copy of the list of components of the dye carton, known as “The Fact Sheet”. He went on to explain: “Every dye-producing company dealing in international markets is required according to laws of the environment to disclose the nature of materials used, indicating that they are not hazardous to the environment or public health.” Obviously, Abbas was talking about the ideal situation, since a high percentage of dyeing companies with cheap products do not do that.
In Shubra El-Khaimah, where a number of private factories are dispersed, most of which are not registered with industrial monitoring agencies, there are no controls over using dyes. Al-Masri Al-Youm camera entered one of these factories for three days searching for the method of using these dyes. Cartons and dye drums do not have any list or statement of contents. Over the three days we spent searching among the dyeing plant sections, Al-Masri Al-Youm documented dyes used in large quantities to give the full strength of the colors without any standards for specifying the quantity of the raw dye in the polyester cloth material. In addition, the dyes are imported from India and China and do not have any documentation showing their contents or absence of hazardous materials.
The last station was Al-Mahallah Al-Kubra, the bastion of the textile industry. The situation was very different from Shubra: A dyeing plant for pants uses Carbon Black, which is a highly toxic material, according to Dr. Hani Barakat, the president of the Public Commission for Standard Specifications. Yet the workers use it with a number of Azo Dyes without any control or precaution, except their previous experience in fixing the mixing ratios in each dyeing basin.
At this point of the investigation, we had to obtain samples of locally produced garments from the market, and others imported from China, whose products are more prevalent in Egypt. For technical assistance, we went to an international plant authorized by the Egyptian Commission for Standardization and the Ministry of Industry. It is one of three specialized plants in Egypt. We met with Mohammad Ibrahim, the plant manager. He mentioned that only 100 out of over 5000 industrial plants working in the field of textiles, are keen on carrying out the necessary tests voluntarily, but they do not target the local market. They export to Europe and the United States, which require passing these tests to obtain a certificate for exporting. From his experience in the Egyptian market, Mohammad explains that “almost 20% of the samples targeted for export fail the test. Producers have to bypass dyeing and preparation flaws so they can export.” As for the local market, no industrial party ever applied for performing these tests.”
After a number of sessions, we employed the experience of Indian Rajat Kumar, the plant expert, and we headed for the city center, Al-Ataba and Al-Azhar. We withdrew random samples of men, women and children garments, including underwear, in addition to printed cloth used for women cloaks. These samples do not represent an accurate monitoring of the garment market in Egypt, but rather an indication of what is happening there.
Between Cairo and Ankara, a number of tests were carried out on the textiles of these garments, including tests on Azo dyes and the residue of hazardous heavy metals in garments after dyeing them. The result was positive in six samples, which proved completely free of these materials. Other samples failed the test, and their results were totally negative. In one T-shirt for men, the residue of Azo dyes, which are prohibited internationally, reached a very dangerous level. It contained Amino Azo Benzene, classified in Europe as highly hazardous and carcinogenic. Instead of a ratio of zero particles in one million, the result of tests proved 130 particles per million. In another case, it was 260 per million. In other three indicative items for children, tests indicated a high level of heavy toxic metals at an unprecedented rate. While European standard specifications permit 1000 particles per million, the ratio exceeded 23,000 and 350,000 per million, and 31,000 in another sample. These ratios increased in another printed cloth sample to reach 188,000 particles per million of heavy metal residues, such as mercury and lead, used heavily in the printing and dyeing process.
Commenting on the previous figures, Rajat says: “There is no relationship between the cheap price of the product and its environmentally unsafe state. Some expensive items may contain hazardous materials. He adds: “You could enter a shop and pull from the first shelf some garments that contain carcinogenic materials, while the second shelf contains perfectly safe items, because they were not dyed in the same dyeing basin as the first items. What makes it more difficult for the average consumer is that he cannot distinguish between garments that contain carcinogenic dyes and those free from them using the naked eye.”
The previous results provide an indication of the garments market state in Egypt. Will we ever see the day when the Ministry of Industry will issue a standard specification that preserves the lives of Egyptians and their right to wear safe garments? The coming days will answer this question.
A factory using prohibited materials in garments, and the editor works for three days as a dyeing plant worker to investigate the use of unknown Chinese dyes.
The worker is the weaker link in the chain of the worsted industry in Egypt. The wage he receives is insufficient to provide sustenance, and the working environment does not protect his health from chemicals that “deplete his skin” and clog his lungs. Al-Masri Al-Youm carried out an investigation adventure in Shubra El-Khaima area, the goal of which was to monitor a number of dyeing plants in this industrial park, to identify the nature of work in these factories and the nature of materials used in dyeing textiles.
Al-Masri Al-Youm reporters spent three days inside a dyeing plant to monitor the situation. They used audio and video to document the hazardous health practices in the process of dyeing garments described in the following lines:
Day 1: The adventure of finding the dyes store
A young fresh graduate searches for a financial shelter in a job that provides a simple income. This was the start that led us to the factory through an intermediary who works there. At 7am, Al-Masri Al-Youm stood in front of a small wall with a gate, without any sign that indicates the identity of the factory. As soon as you penetrate the gate into the factory, your vision is opened to a vast area which is the real size of the factory, comprising the old dyeing plant, the new dyeing plant, the processing area and the dyes storage.
Darkness prevails inside the dyeing plant, including the equipment, machines, installations and pieces of cloth material lying around, as well as the floor which is covered with various dyeing colors.
The storekeeper is the worker who works most with the carnival of colors, but he is oblivious of the hazards involved in working with them in a wrong manner. “The most important thing is to be patient, persevere and open your eyes well.” These are the words uttered by Hussein, the dyeing plant supervisor. He added: “Look here, Mohammad; you will work here for 600 pounds a month. Work is from 7am to 7pm, and you shall have one meal a day, composed of a loaf of bread and a piece of Nesto cheese.”
I got involved in carrying bales of raw cloth material, transporting them to automatic dyeing machines, and bringing all dyeing components from the artificial salt and color “sacks”, and then standing by the dyeing equipment to assist the machine operator. At the end of the day, workers were washing their hands and feet, colored by dyes before leaving home.
Day 2: Inspecting and Identifying the Dyes
After a successful day at the plant, I met with my colleague Ali Zalat. My assignment at the plant became more risky. In summary, I had to search for the identity of the dyes used by the plant, and to know the names of the boxes, and take pictures of them. The cartons contained the dyes, and I was to identify them and see which country they were imported from, and trying to obtain a sample if possible.
At precisely seven o’clock, and as usual, I was in front of the plant gate carrying inside my bag a small video camera which I placed inside a plastic shoe I had bought to wear, so I would protect my feet from the dyes strewn around everywhere. During work hours, I started to sneak into the store without Yousef noticing. I took pictures of the dye cartons and their brand names. I noticed that all dyes were imported from China or South East Asian countries. There were no content lists on them, and no certificates indicating they were free of hazardous materials. One container drew my attention. It had “formaldehyde” written on it; a health hazardous material. There were also many cartons with an unidentified nature. I kept some of their contents and took pictures of them.
“Who is inside?!”, shouted Yousef, the dye store supervisor, as I took pictures of some materials inside the store. I was a bit confused and scared, but I regained my composure. “What are you doing?” he asked. I answered: “I was playing with my phone, and I wanted to chat with you so you introduce me to dyes and their types, so I can learn fast and understand the system”.
I sat down with him, exchanging talk. He explained in detail, in his weak voice but rapid way of talking, all types of the dyeing business. It was clear from his talk that he was unaware of the hazards of the dyeing process to human health.
That day, Yousef looked tired. While talking, he stopped abruptly, holding his belly and saying: “I am very tired today”. He ran to the bathroom as if he was about to throw up. He looked in great pain, and stayed for ten minutes vomiting in one of the bathroom stalls. He almost fell to the floor, had I not held him until he sat down on a wooden chair. After he calmed down, I asked him about his health. He answered saying: “When I first started working here I was not like this. My health was fine, and I used to carry stuff. But now I am sick, and I get this vomiting and coughing every month. God help me with this store keeping job.”
Yousef added: “Every time a new person comes to work here at the store, he cannot go on, and leaves. I have ben working here for years, trying to persevere. Two people were here before me. One of them had a sickness he could not shake away, and the other died. Many workers are sick and have chest problems.”
Picking up on the talk from Yousef about the workers being sick, I took a walk around the factory, talking to some of them. I discovered that chest problems and allergies were common among some of them, but no one of them cared to visit a doctor so that they are not considered absent on that day and end up losing some of their pay, according to one of the workers.
At the end of each day, all factory workers are searched at the exit gate, to make sure workers don’t steal cloth material as they leave. This posed a big problem for me; namely, how can I take out the camera I brought with me? After some thinking, I found a way to hide these items inside my plastic shoes. I left the factory after being searched, but not caught.
Day 3: Looking for the reasons behind Yousef’s sickness
I went to the factory today to tell Yousef, the storekeeper about my mission, and to invite him to take a medical examination, so his case can be treated, because he looked very sick.
Yousef was convinced of the idea, especially that the treatment would be free, because the newspaper would pay for the inspection and treatment. His case was examined by Dr. Amal Al-Safti, director of the Occupational diseases and Industry Medicine at Qasr El-Aini hospital. The storekeeper underwent a number of medical tests, and the doctor’s report emphasized that he is suffering from an itch and a skin irritation in areas of his arms and legs that are directly exposed to the dyes. He was also suffering from breathing difficulty and from chest problems resulting from exposure to dye dust during week days. He was told these symptoms will improve during holidays.
Dr. Amal Al-Safti emphasized that these symptoms are the result of not using personal protection means during work at the factory; such as masks and rubber gloves and shoes that protect from direct exposure to these dyes. She added that the workers’ direct exposure to these dyeing materials makes them susceptible to some dangerous diseases, resulting from heavy metals deposited in their blood, which could cause even cancer.
Yousef was more tolerant of these symptoms than others. But the adventure exposed the magnitude of the harm inflicted on workers in dyeing companies, who know nothing about the toxicity of the materials they are exposed to every day and that they also affect the public health of consumers in case the dyes are not used in a controlled manner approved by international standards for this type of hazardous industry.
This report was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) www.arij.net under the supervision of Amr Al-Kahki from the International Center for Journalists.