Ever since people could create, they have been endeavoring to add color to the world around them. They used natural matter to stain hides, decorate shells and feathers, and paint their story on the walls of ancient caves. Scientists have been able to date the black, white, yellow and reddish pigments made from ochre used by primitive man in cave paintings to over 15,000 BCE. With the development of fixed settlements and agriculture around 7,000-2,000 BCE man began to produce and use textiles, and started adding color to them as well. Although scientists have not yet been able to pinpoint an exact time where adding color to fibers first came into practice, dye analysis on textile fragments excavated from archaeological sites in Denmark have placed the use of the blue dye woad (the leaves of the plant produce blue dye) along with an as yet unidentified red dye in the first century CE. This gave birth to natural dyeing (also known as herbal dyeing). In the 1800s scientists discovered how to make synthetic dyes. They were cheaper, brighter, more color-fast, and easy to apply to fabric and soon natural dyes become obsolete for most applications.
However there is dangerous down side to this which we are now discovering. The chemicals used to produce dyes today are often highly toxic, carcinogenic or even explosive. The chemical Anililine, the basis for a popular group of dyes known as Azo dyes which are considered deadly poisons and dangerous to work with. Other chemials used in conventional dyeing process today include dioxin (a carcinogen and possible hormone disrupter), toxic heavy metals (which are known carcinogens) such as chrome, copper and zinc, and formaldehyde (a suspected carcinogen).
In the nineteen century and even today in countries like China, India and Bangladesh – which manufacture many of the clothes we wear – little regard is paid to the safety dye worker labor. And of course, the impact on the environment has been similarly diasterours. The industrial dyeing process involves a solution of a dye in water, in which the fabrics are dipped or washed. After the dyeing a batch of fabric, the dye effluent (dye + water) is usually dumped in the near by water body or river. Things are made worse as there is little to no oversight by the authroizes in the developing nations which produce much of the fabric and clothes that are worn around the world. Even if the dye effluent is treated by separating the dye chemicals from the water there are still traces of it in the water. And then there is the problem of disposing of the high toxic dye sludge. According to South-Central University in Wuhan, China, about about 1.6 billion tons of dye-containing wastewater is produced every year, but only a small proportion of this is recycled. See following articles for more information:
Synthetic dyes are toxic to humans – there is no debate about that. The question is whether a piece of cloth dyed using these chemicals is safe of us or not. New research is emerging examining the short and long term effects of potential skin absorption of dye and finishing chemicals through clothing. According to Green Cotton, young babies and children actually show increased levels of chemicals in their bloodstream and skin. The prolonged contact with one’s skin, toxic chemicals are often absorbed into the skin, especially when the body is warm and wet either due to perspiration or hot shower/bath. According to the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation symptoms of dye/chemical absorption in adults range from skin rashes, headaches, trouble concentrating, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, irregular heart beat, and/or seizures. Symptoms in children include red cheeks and ears, dark circles under the eyes, hyperactivity, and behavior or learning problems.
Each new synthetic dye developed is a brand new compound, and we have no information on it’s risks to us and the environment. Many dyes like FD&C Red No. 2 (dark red to purple azo dye) have entered the market, then have subsequently been discovered to be carcinogenic and withdrawn – thankfully is has been banned by the FDA (at least as a food coloring). But the harm is already done – it’s backwards to create a dye, see if it’s hazardous, then ban. In addition to the dyes, the garment finishes are often equally as harmful. They are used for creating wrinkle-free, stain resistant, flame retardant, anti-static, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, odor-resistant, permanent-press, non-shrink fabrics, etc. Some examples of the kind of chemicals used are formaldehyde (a known carcinogen), Fluoropolymers (as in Teflon!), flame retardants, triclosan (dangerous neurotoxins and irritants). See http://www.totalhealthmagazine.com/Allergies-Asthma/Consumers-Beware-Toxins-Lurking-in-Your-Clothing.html for more information.
All is not lost – things are improving. Responsible dye manufactures are investigating ways to treat their dye effluent with organic materials and bacteria, rather than chemical treatments to improve dye manufacture and processing to minimize hazardous chemicals used. Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a great step forward. See our article that discuss the difference between USDA Organic and GOTS. And here at Maatee we are going far beyond existing Organic standards by using only actual plant material (like onions, turmeric, pomegranate, etc) and minerals in our dyeing process. We call it Zero WasteTM Natural Dyeing. Please read here for more information. People are becomig more conscious of not only what they eat and wear but how it is grown and manufactured – and this is what will bring about real change. We need to design things not with profits in mind but with our health and environment as the prime focus.