Natural Dye: Synthetic Dye


Synthetic dye and its impact on the environment

Since the accidental discovery of the first synthetic dye, mauve, made from coal by William Henry Perkins in 1856, the use of natural dyes begin to phase out. And why not? Synthetic dyes are more colour fast, have a wide spectrum of colours that can be easily and accurately reproduced, cost less and can impart qualities such as making the cloth wrinkle free or even having a permanent, fashionable crease. It does seem quite the novel invention but have you ever paused to think; just what you are wearing actually harms the environment?

Let us take a look at the ingredients used for manufacturing synthetic dye. Synthetic dye is usually made from aniline or chrome. While dyes made from aniline are less poisonous than aniline on its own, we need to think how aniline can impact not just the environment but the workers involved in the manufacturing process. Aniline’s level of toxicity is not known but it does disrupt the oxygen distribution process in the body. Are we going to let innocent workers become unsuspecting lab rats by exposing them to a known poisonous compound?

Chrome is easily found in the land, air and even water but is most attracted to the land. Once soil is contaminated with high levels of chrome, it stays there as chrome does not enter the water easily, therefore its molecules cannot move around once it is in the soil. It stays. Workers in industries which utilize chrome have been prone to nasal irritations and have a heightened chance to develop lung and respiratory cancer. Imagine having organic cotton dyed with synthetic dye that has endangered the health of people. That will completely ruin the concept of having an eco-friendly piece of cloth.


A nasal septum perforation (a hole that happens in the area that separates the nostrils) that can occur due to inhaling chrome)


During the manufacturing process of such dyes, strong acids, alkalis and solvents are used along with certain heavy metals to get a particular compound. Besides posing a health hazard, it also generates a great amount of toxic waste. Plus, they usually need high temperatures to produce a certain compound. For example, creating a dye known as Mordant Blue 23 in the Color Index, part of its production includes combining a few ingredients with sulfur to produce Sulfur Trioxide (S2O3 )at a temperature of 1300°C.

It strains the environment because industries still depend on un-renewable energy sources such as petroleum and coal, especially since most dye mills are located in poorer regions of the world such as India and China.  With a greater demand for synthetic dye, a greater carbon footprint will be left on our environment due to the depletion of coal and petroleum as well as the fumes emitted.

Even after the dye has been completed, there is wastage that gives a negative impact on the environment. For example, the grinding of materials or the dumping of dry, powdered materials; these actions can pollute the air, making it toxic to anyone who inhales it. Between each batch of materials processed, the equipment needs to be cleaned as well for quality control purposes and this uses a great deal of water.

The water that is flushed from this process is not safe as it contains lots of chemicals such as the dye itself, remnants of dye intermediates (ingredients that kick start certain chemical processes) and minute solids. These are all highly toxic and till this day, not many companies treat this wastewater properly before disposing of it.

Due to the unavailability of an efficient waste disposal system, cases such as the Fuan textile factory in Guangdong which deals primarily with export textiles of brands such as Gap, Target and Wal-Mart; dumped its dye waste into the Maozhou River, contaminating not just a direct water source but the underground water source as well. Underground water contamination lasts for many years which endanger the health of the current and future generation.

This is just one of the many illegal cases of dye waste dumping in China; though it may be hard to fault the dye mills alone for doing so. American apparel companies which forms the largest customer base for China’s dye mills demand lower and lower prices and to keep up with demand, the waste water is not treated to cut costs.



The polluted Jian River in Luoyang, Henan, China.


Synthetic dye and various clothing finishes have also been known to be a trigger for clothing dermatitis, which is a skin condition resulting in an allergic reaction from synthetic dye or any additives in clothing. This is commonly present in heavy-set and or individuals who sweat easily and is normally concentrated in the armpits, groin and the waistband area. Natural fibres such as angora, cotton and linen have never caused this condition though treated or starched cotton can be an instigator.


Contact dermatitis from synthetic dyes.

Dematitis resulting from diaper dye.










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