Dying for Dye
The consequences of clothing dyes on our health.
Our initial attraction to clothing stems from their color. Whether it be a favorite color or a color that highlights our features, it is this color that brings the clothing to life. However, this allure dims when the reality behind how it came to be is revealed.
The majority of fabric dyes are chemical based, comprising primarily of azo dyes, heavy metals and chlorobenzenes. Azo dyes are used to achieve vivid hues (translation: neon). They are nitrogen-containing compounds that release amines — known carcinogens — and are water soluble, meaning they can be absorbed by your skin, especially after sweating or wearing them for a long period of time (1).
Heavy metals (such as cadmium, lead, mercury and chromium) are used to “fixate” color in fabric, produce bright colors (lead), and are present in leather goods (chromium is used in leather tanning). They bio-accumulate in the air and water, thereby accumulating in our bodies. Over a long period of time, this buildup can disrupt metabolic functions by impairing vital organ and gland function and displace nutritional minerals needed by the body (2).
Chlorobenzenes are used in the dyeing process as carriers (which disperse dye throughout fabric) or levelling agents (used to achieve a uniform color). They are more often used in polyester and polyester blend textiles, rather than natural textiles. They can be toxic by inhalation or skin contact and can accumulate in the body over time affecting the liver, thyroid and central nervous system (3).
Not only do these dyes impact consumers, but they also impact the workers involved in the fabric production process. Textile workers directly handle these chemicals, exposing themselves to the negative effects of these toxins, which are greater when handled raw; reproductive and respiratory problems and cancer being a few of the major hazards (4).
Garments contain only 5% of the raw materials used to develop them, leaving the other 95% to drift away in waste water. This means the majority of the aforementioned toxic dyes used in fabric production are polluting waters worldwide, impacting all forms of life (5).
Many communities positioned near textile factories share a body of water with fabric production. This body of water is their main source of water for both drinking and irrigation, as well as a source of food. However, this is also where the effluents run from the fabric dyeing process, contaminating the water source (5). The toxins and heavy metals in this wastewater can cause cancer, hemorrhage, ulceration of skin, nausea, skin irritation and dermatitis (6).
In addition, the toxins in the water block sunlight from reaching life in the water and remove oxygen from the water, thereby inhibiting photosynthesis and the re-oxygenation process that life within these waters — both plant and animal — need to survive. Toxins can also be absorbed and ingested by sea life, thereby making their way through the food chain (7).
Luckily, there are natural alternatives to produce the same appealing colors. So, how can we shop safely without sacrificing color? Look for items made of ‘Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) Certified Fabric’ as this is the leading standard in sustainable clothing. The GOTS certification ensures that manufacturers follow strict standards regarding the types of dyes that can be used (azo dyes and heavy metals are not allowed) and considers the impact of the dye on workers and the environment.
Look for clothing labels that use plant-based dyes. Indigo is a popular source, but some brands even use flowers or food-based dyes (avocado dye, anyone?). And (bonus!) plant-based dyes take better to natural fibers (especially cotton) than synthetic (7), so you can feel confident that these are your most sustainable option.
In addition, digital printing has a smaller environmental footprint than dyes and is thereby a great alternative. However, be sure to look for companies that use natural rather than synthetic pigments and fibers in this process.
- Devos, H. What’s in my clothes? Not these toxic substances. The Extra Smile. https://the-extrasmile.com/blogs/fabrics/banned-substances#:~:text=Azo%20dyes%20are%20often%20used,not%20run%20in%20the%20wash. Accessed June 05, 2022.
- Singh R, Gautam N, Mishra A, Gupta R. Heavy metals and living systems: An overview. Indian J Pharmacol. 2011;43(3):246–253. doi:10.4103/0253–7613.81505. Accessed June 05, 2022.
- Allergy Standards Ltd. What chemicals are in Textiles and the Health Implications. https://www.allergystandards.com/news_events/chemicals-in-textiles-and-the-health-implications/. Accessed June 05, 2022.
- Singh, Z., Chadha, P. Textile industry and occupational cancer. J Occup Med Toxicol. 2016;11, 39. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12995-016-0128-3. Accessed June 05, 2022.
- Fashion Revolution. The true cost of colour: The impact of textile dyes on water systems. https://www.fashionrevolution.org/the-true-cost-of-colour-the-impact-of-textile-dyes-on-water-systems/. Accessed June 01, 2022.
- Lellis, B., Fávaro-Polonio, C. Z., Pamphile, J. A., & Polonio, J. C. Effects of textile dyes on health and the environment and bioremediation potential of living organisms. Biotechnology Research and Innovation 2019;3(2):275–290. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2452072119300413. Accessed June 05, 2022.
- Ghaly AE, Ananthashankar R, Alhattab M, Ramakrishnan VV. Production, Characterization and Treatment of Textile Effluents: A Critical Review. J Chem Eng Process Technol 5: 182. doi: 10.4172/2157–7048.1000182. Accessed June 05, 2022.