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Story Publication logo May 8, 2014

India: The Toxic Price of Leather

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Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.
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India's rapid growth over the past 30 years has seen its economy emerge as one of the largest and...

Media file: 02.india-pollution-gallagher-26.jpg
Chamilal, 55, stands outside his farmhouse in a small village near the city of Kanpur. He is one of many local farmers who suffer from serious skin conditions, believed to have been brought about by contact with toxic waste water from local tanneries. Image by Sean Gallagher. India, 2013.

The city of Kanpur lies on the banks of the Ganges River in northern India. It has become one of the most important cities in India as its leather industry has grown.

First established in the mid-19th century, Kanpur is now the country's biggest producer of leather products. Its leather is exported across the world, with 95 percent of its output destined for Western markets including those in the US, UK and Germany.

The success comes at great environmental and social cost. Pollution from the tanneries is destroying the ecology of the local Ganges River and scarring residents in the form of life-threatening illnesses.

The city is now notorious for having some of the country's worst water pollution problems yet the tannery industry continues to discharge waste water laced with toxic chemicals, such as chromium, freely into local waterways.

This water is channeled onto local farmland, poisoning the soil, entering the food chain and accumulating in local ecosystems. At greatest risk are the people who work in the tanneries and farmers who work daily with the toxic and highly acidic water.

Local residents suffer an array of health troubles, a result of the bioaccumulation of dangerous toxins over decades. Health problems include cancers, mental illness, child development issues and skin diseases.

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