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1 January 2010

Harmful Chemicals, Natural Dyes

Contributor Ethical Fashion Forum


Over the last two decades the synthetic dye industry has developed thorough health, safety and environmental standards to reduce negative impacts. However, there are still companies making carcinogenic dyes or those laced with harsh chemicals.


1. Introduction
2. AZO Dyes, NPE and Pthalates
3. Synthetic Dyes
4. A Natural Alternative
5. Summary
6. Useful Links
7. References

1. Introduction

The majority of garment production and fabric dying now takes place in developing countries. Often health and safety regulations are not well enforced, with workers not using protective equipment or using banned products, which can be extremely damaging to health and wellbeing.

An alternative to chemical dyes is natural dyes (dye colours made from plant and animal sources). These may not be suited to large scale production, often requiring large amounts of water and chemical fixing agents. However they can be grown organically and are carbon neutral, and their use brings great benefits at an artisanal level.

Pioneering fair trade organisations such as Aranya in Bangladesh have revived the use of natural dyes, re-kindling centuries old culture and skills, creating beautiful, jewel like colours, and directly improving the livelihoods of crafts people and their communities through high quality products with a unique selling point.

2. AZO Dyes, NPE and Pthalates

AZO colorants are the most important class of synthetic dyes and pigments, representing 60 – 80% of all organic colorants. They are used widely in substrates such as textile fibres, leather, plastics, papers, hair, mineral oils, waxes, foodstuffs and cosmetics.” (TFL.com)

In 2003 the EU banned the use of AZO dyes in products likely to come into close contact with skin. This was due to scientific evidence suggesting AZO dyes are carcinogenic and have a detrimental effect on the human reproductive system.

However, many global brands outsourcing manufacture to developing countries such as China. Production and use of substances such as NPE and AZO dyes are less likely to be regulated in these regions.

NPE (nonylphenol ethoxylates) are used in textile production for scouring, conditioning and dye-levelling, mainly for wool. The use of NPE as detergent and for fibre conditioning during processing leads to large volumes of the chemical being released into the aquatic environment. NPE is highly toxic to aquatic life and has been shown to have reproductive and developmental effects on fish. NP, a broken down form of NPE, has also been detected in human breast milk, blood and urine.

Pthalates are used as ‘plasticisers to make hard plastics more flexible and as adhesive dyes and solvents in other products. They are used in packaging, cosmetics and textiles. Pthalates are now banned from use in children’s toys since they have been linked with hormone disruption. Young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of pthalates.

Pthalates have also been linked with premature birth. Mothers with a higher exposure to Pthalates are more likely to go into early labour, and male foetus’ exposed to Pthalates in the womb are more likely to have genital and reproductive defects when born.

Despite the health hazards and regulations in place a 2012 GreenPeace study found traces of AZO dyes, NPE and pthalates in items of clothing from 20 global brands sold across 29 countries.

“About two thirds of the 141 samples contained NPEs, four samples had high levels of toxic phthalates, and traces of cancer-causing amines from the use of AZO dyes were detected in two products from Zara.“ GreenPeace, 2012

3. Synthetic Dyes

Since the industrial zone opened in 1992, almost 60 of the 1,500 residents in the two neighbouring villages have died of cancer – about 3% of the population – accounting for 80% of all deaths – GreenPeace, 2012

Wastewater effluent is an environmental threat. Even after wastewater has been treated, residual chemicals from the dying process continue to be present in water supplies.These residues can be carcinogenic, toxic, mutagenic and have detrimental effects upon human reproductive systems.

A 2012 GreenPeace report uncovered some disturbing information. In 1992 textile plants were built along the banks of the Qiantang,the most important river in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. According to the report “since the industrial zone opened in 1992, almost 60 of the 1,500 residents in the two neighbouring villages have died of cancer – about 3% of the population – accounting for 80% of all deaths.“

Dumped wastewater from dye plants in developing economies such as India and China is not as closely regulated and poses a very real threat to both humans and aquaculture.

The GreenPeace report also described how a burst water pipe killed 2000 tonnes of fish being farmed in the region.

4. A Natural Alternative

As an alternative to synthetic dyes some designers and brands choose to use plant-derived natural dyes.

These dyes do not have the same toxic residues as synthetic dyes. In the case of natural indigo dyeing, the waste water can even be used on agricultural land to provide nutrients to crops.

Five classic natural dyestuffs are indigo, cutch, weld, madder and cochineal. These dyes can be used to make almost every colour. Natural dyes give a far more complex finish and present an array of possible tones compared to the monotonous colour of synthetic dyes.

5. Summary

Governments regulate and ban the most toxic chemicals used in manufacturing but understanding of the effects that various chemicals have on health and the environment is still developing. The full impacts will take time to measure. Those substances that are regulated or banned in the EU and US still find their way into stores thanks to outsourcing

Brands and retailers must take responsibility for the impacts of their products, and to the best of their abilities ensure that factories are treating and disposing of wastewater responsibly.

6. Useful Links

More information on NPE

Ecotextile News

Textile consultancy specialising in dying, finishing, printing and chemicals

Eco-metrics: A tool devised to calculate the environmental impact of the different textile types and different production methods.

Society of Dyers and Colourists

Information on natural dyes

7. References

EU Ban on Certain AZO Dyes 2004 TFL

GreenPeace exposes hazardous chemicals in clothes sold by Zara, and other leading fashion brands 2012 GreenPeace

Officials failing to stop textile factories dumping waste in Qiantang River 2013 China Dialogue

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