“Fake Silk” unravels a sordid history involving a deadly chemical, suicides and even Nazi slave labor”

by Andrea Hricko, MPH

When I offered to write a Pump Handle review of Dr. Paul Blanc's new book Fake Silk, I had no idea that it would make me question the clothes I was wearing, which I believe to be "environmentally sustainable."  I didn't even put that connection together after hearing Blanc speak at a recent book-signing party in Los Angeles.

But at the party, Dr. Blanc mentioned that "rayon" (or "fake silk") fibers had once been made in Axis, Alabama at a plant that went through several owners with one of its novel rayon patents (for a product called Tencel), bought out by Lenzing Fibers. Lenzing advertises the fabric it as Tencel – “a botanic fiber”… “that comes from nature.”  As I delved into the frightening tale that is Blanc's book, I read about Lenzing and its sordid history during World War II in Austria.  The pants I have confidently bought from a local L.A. manufacturer are made of, you guessed it, Tencel, and apparently by Lenzing Fibers. That certainly spurred my interest in reading the whole story behind “Fake Silk”!

As part of his worldwide research for the book, Dr. Blanc visited the Lenzing plant in Austria and reviewed the NIOSH archives on Axis, Alabama, among many other locales. Notable about the Austrian plant was its use in WWII for slave labor by the Nazis, where the plant made fabric for military and other uses. Like most of the industry, the plant's process for creating rayon, or viscose, emitted the toxic chemical, carbon disulfide, the underlying topic of Blanc's book. Exposure to this chemical causes severe neurologic problems, to the point that workers at manufacturing sites in the U.S. and around the world  actually committed suicide after overexposure to it. Others developed Parkinson’s or suffered strokes.

In an interview last week with Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Blanc said:

"There was a famous rubber factory where they put bars on the second story windows because so many workers had a tendency to jump out and kill themselves.”

Author Paul Blanc, who holds an endowed chair at UC San Francisco School of Medicine, is an occupational health physician. But this book illustrates how he is so much more... an historian... a humanist...  a corporate investigator... and someone who understands both politics and economics. His book reflects a wide range of intellectual interests.

Fake Silk tells the story of "the lethal history of viscose rayon" during WWI and WWII, how the industry moved to developing countries, and efforts of corporations to "greenwash" viscose.

But back to Tencel for a moment. It is hard to fathom that the fabric in my clothing is made by a company that once used slave labor under the Nazis. But actually, it turns out that Tencel is an innovation that does not require carbon disulfide, although it is unclear how toxic the alternative solvent used (something called “NMMO”) might be; NMMO is usually referred to as “benign.” Tencel is a small part of the overall viscose market, which also includes carbon disulfide-using cellophane and rayon sponges which are common in kitchens.

For those of us whose careers started out in the 1970s with occupational health, and for those of us who have since been involved more in environmental health (rather than worker safety) issues, this book shows the close connection between the two fields. Workers got sick inside the plants from carbon disulfide exposure; nearby residents got sick from what the plants emitted.

As I bet many Pump Handle readers do, I think of myself as someone who knows quite a bit about the history of worker health. But I had no idea about the grim history that Paul Blanc so compellingly describes, with meticulous footnotes.

I hope you will enjoy reading Paul Blanc’s history of this industry as much as I did – even though being horrified by the tale that he unravels.

Andrea Hricko is a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. 


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