In this slim, action-packed book, Paul Da- vid Blanc takes the reader on a historical tour that touches on chemistry, occupa- tional health, and the maneuverings of multinational corporations. Our guide is a small, “elegant” molecule called carbon
disulfide—a compound that is a key ingredient in the making of viscose (better known
as rayon) and is also insidiously toxic, having
devastated the minds and bodies of factory
workers for more than a century.
Fake Silk: The Lethal History of Viscose Rayon unveils a story that, in Blanc’s
words, “deserves to be every bit as familiar
as the cautionary tales of asbestos insulation,
leaded paint, or the mercury-tainted seafood
in Minimata Bay.” Who knew that the fabric
that has had its turn on the high-fashion runway, as a pop-culture joke (remember leisure
suits?), and more recently as a “green” textile
had such a dark side?
Rayon is a cellulose-based textile in which
fibers from tree trunks and plant stalks are
spun together into a soft and absorbent
fabric. First patented in England in 1892,
viscose-rayon production was firmly estab-
lished by the American Viscose Company in
the United States in 1911. Ten years later, the
factory was buzzing with thousands of work-
ers. “[E]very man, woman, and child who had
to be clothed” were once considered potential
consumers by ambitious manufacturers.
However, once the silken fibers are formed,
carbon disulfide—a highly volatile chemical—is released, filling factory workrooms
with fumes that can drive workers insane.
Combining accounts from factory records,
occupational physicians’ reports, journal articles, and interviews with retired workers,
Blanc reveals the misery behind the making
of this material: depression, weeks in the
insane asylum, and, in some cases, suicide.
Those who were not stricken with neurological symptoms might still succumb to blindness, impotency, and malfunctions of the
vascular system and other organs. For each
reported case, I could not help but wonder
how many others retreated quietly into their
disabilities or graves.
Yet, “[a]s their nerves and vessels weak-
ened, the industry they worked in became
stronger,” writes Blanc. In Fake Silk, he ex-
poses an industry that played hardball: im-
plementing duopolies and price-fixing and
influencing federal health standards. Viscose
manufacturers, he writes, served as a “proto-
type of a multinational business enterprise,
an early model of what would become the
dominant modus operandi for large business
entities after World War II.”
The business of transforming plants into
products is once again on the rise as con-
sumers increasingly shun petroleum-based
synthetic materials. China now accounts for
60% of rayon production, with India, Thai-
land, and several other countries accounting
for the rest. (According to Blanc, U.S. pro-
duction of viscose rayon has “gone offline.”)
Yet, despite modernization of the manufac-
turing process—including improved venti-
lation—worker safety, writes Blanc, is not
a given. The few available reports on con-
temporary production suggest that recom-
mended exposure limits are often exceeded.
(“Not to worry,” Blanc derisively notes when
writing about the risk to consumers. “Any
carbon disulfide that might have been in
the fiber would have long since vaporized
into the ... factory well before it ever got to
the savvy shopper.”)
The fabric’s recent rebirth as an ecofriendly
product [marketed by one manufacturer
with the tagline “Nature returns to Nature”
(1)], notes Blanc, is a “real tour de force of
corporate chutzpah.” But Blanc does not let
the consumer off the hook either, noting our
persistent blind spot when it comes to fast
fashion and worker safety.
Reading Fake Silk, I could not help but
wonder about the manufacturing process behind my T-shirt or the new dress hanging in
my closet. Was someone harmed in the making of the kitchen sponge I just unwrapped?
(The sponge and the cellophane it came in
are also products of the cellulose carbon disulfide process.)
Years ago, I taught a class focused on
toxic textiles. Had Blanc’s book Fake Silk
been available at the time, it certainly would
have been on the reading list—with a caveat.
Although his passion for the topic shines
through, the book’s sometimes excruciating
detail (there are nearly 60 pages of notes)
almost derailed me, particularly in the early
chapters. But what at first seemed like a
weakness eventually turned into a strength.
In the end, I could almost see the parade of
scientists, politicians, and industrialists who
pushed and pulled this industrial fiber while
factory workers and their families suffered.
“I am motivated by a desire to memorial-
ize the terrible suffering that has occurred,”
writes Blanc. With Fake Silk, he has surely
1. “Nature returns to Nature”; www.lenzing-fibers.com/en.
25 NOVEMBER 2016 • VOL 354 ISSUE 6315 977 SCIENCE sciencemag.org
A physician uncovers the
disturbing history of an
By Emily Monosson
The Lethal History of
Paul David Blanc
Yale University Press,
2016. 325 pp.
BOOKS et al.
A worker adjusts rayon threads at a factory in
Richmond, Virginia, in the 1950s.
The reviewer is the author of Evolution in a Toxic World (Island
Press, Washington, DC, 2012). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org