Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon

Photo: John R. Balmes, COEH Director
Dr. Paul Blanc

Interweaving stories of scientific discovery, industrialization, and public health, Dr. Paul Blanc’s new book, Fake Silk (Yale University Press), discloses the exploitation and cruelty of the factories and the profit-first system that created the product called cellulose viscose, the basis of the synthetic rayon, cellophane, cellulose sponges, and other products.

Cover for Fake Silk

Viscose, an innovative and lucrative product first introduced in the early twentieth century, quickly became a multinational corporate enterprise. Blanc investigates industry practices from the beginning through two highly profitable world wars, the mid-century export of hazardous manufacturing to developing countries, and the current “greenwashing” of viscose as an eco-friendly product.

In the November 2016 issue of Science, environmental toxicologist and author Emily Monosson describes how Fake Silk takes the reader on a historical tour that touches on chemistry, occupational health, and the maneuverings of multinational corporations.

“Rayon is a cellulose-based textile in which fibers from tree trunks and plant stalks are spun together into a soft and absorbent fabric,” explains Monosson. “First patented in England in 1892, viscose-rayon production was firmly established by the American Viscose Company in the United States in 1911. Ten years later, the factory was buzzing with thousands of workers. ‘[E]very man, woman, and child who had to be clothed’ were once considered potential consumers by ambitious manufacturers.”

“This transnational — indeed, international — history is breathtaking in its scope, for it encompasses economic, medical, industrial, labor, and cultural history in its purview. In short, this is an essential book for anyone interested in how a powerful industry can affect the health and well-being of workers and others across the globe,” writes Gerald Markowitz in a book review published in the April 2017 issue of American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

Fake Silk describes the toxic hazards associated with carbon disulfide. We learn about the health effects and the consequent suffering of countless workers that repeats decade after decade in the manufacturing of viscose. As the relentless industrial process unfolds and the scale of harm to workers increases the book inspires with details of occupational health heroes, such as Alice Hamilton, MD, whose scientific work and public health advocacy struggled against the conditions that exposed workers to harm.

The narrative of Fake Silk reveals deceptive practices of industry as the market for the product grew as the twentieth century progressed. Even today viscose, often sold as rayon, is touted as a natural product. Although it is correct that viscose is derived from cellulose, viscose is created after a complex process involving highly toxic carbon disulfide; a fact that it is not regularly shared with workers let alone the wider public. Not at any direct risk from the chemical, it has been all too easy for consumers to ignore the occupational hazard of carbon disulfide.

The book is a highly recommended read for those interested in social justice, history, occupational health, and public health. The US OSHA standard for carbon disulfide is less protective than almost any other nation’s (India has the same legal exposure limit). The story of viscose reminds us that we must stay vigilant.

COEH faculty Paul Blanc, MD, is chief of the Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in the UCSF Department of Medicine and the author of How Everyday Products Make People Sick (University of California Press, 2009). His blog, “Household Hazards,” is hosted by the magazine Psychology Today.  Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon is published by Yale University Press.

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