How Natural Textile Dyes May Protect Health and Promote Environmental Sustainability

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Author: Dr. Joseph Mercola | Published: October 1, 2017

Most people never give a thought to how a piece of clothing was given its color. Unfortunately, if you don’t, you could unknowingly expose yourself to hazardous chemicals on a daily basis. Fabric dyes are also a significant environmental concern, contributing to pollution — oftentimes in poorer countries with lax regulations on toxic chemicals to begin with.

Rebecca Burgess, author of “Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dyes,” has 15 years’ worth of experience in this area and is the executive director of Fibershed — a word she coined — which is a resource for creating safe, organic textile dyes.

“I started this work when I was taught to train young children in how to use dyes when I was in college,” Burgess says. “It was a textile art summer program [and] I was in charge of direct instruction for [a group of] 9-year-olds. It was a summer job. It exposed me to the arts and crafts side of textile dyeing … I was helping them use these compounds to color t-shirts.

We had to wear gloves. I had to wear a mask. People had to wear aprons. We couldn’t let the powder get in the air. We were so careful once we opened these jars of powder to not get it in our lungs or on our skin. The ingredients list wasn’t very clear.

The molecular breakdown of what was in the material wasn’t clear, but the producers of the dyes were asking anyone who uses them to be very careful with inhalation and exposure, especially skin exposure … A light bulb went off. ‘Why am I having children use a material that they have to wear masks and gloves [to use]?’ While we’re making the dye, we’re suited up.

And then we take the T-shirt out of the bucket. We rinse it a little, and then we put the T-shirt on our bodies. Somehow it’s OK to wear the stuff on your skin, but it’s not OK to touch the powder? There was a chasm between what seems like solid logic in what we were willing to expose ourselves to and why we were doing what we were doing.”

Plant-Based Versus Synthetic Dyes  

At that time, 21 years ago, Burgess used the search engine of the time (Ask Jeeves) to inquire about alternative dyes and discovered you could use things like onion skins, cabbage and beets. Armed with onion skins, cabbages, beets and hand-harvested blackberries and dandelion leaves, Burgess set to work learning how to create natural dyes.

“I just started bringing food-based products into our textile program. The kids started cutting up vegetables and putting it in pots of water, heating it up and making tie-dye T-shirts, but with cabbage, collard, onion, beets, blackberries and dandelion. And then we can take that fluid, cool it down, and then pour it back out on the lawn. It was tea essentially.”

Over time, Burgess discovered industrial dyes contain a number of fossil carbon-based chemicals known to be endocrine disruptors. A master’s thesis circulating around the UC Davis campus at the time pointed out that it took 400 pounds of coal tar to make a single ounce of blue dye. Interestingly, the first synthetic dye actually came about by accident.

“William Perkins was looking for a cure for malaria and was using coal tar. He had an explosion in his lab in 1856. All this purple goo landed on the walls. He realized that could actually be [used as] a textile dye … All of the dyes, ever since then … are fossil-carbon derived and heavy metal combined. That, in itself, was how we started our industrial dye process.

Of course, things have evolved. There are processes that take the heavy metals out of the dyes. Those are called acid dyes. But at the end of the day, all of the dyes have endocrine disruptors … [Hormones are] messenger chemicals. If those are scrambled, you can create a lot of subsequent health issues, from cancer to autoimmune diseases, to learning disabilities.

Some people say there are multiple generation impacts … intergenerational DNA damage … The peer-reviewed science on endocrine disruption is very clear. We don’t know enough about how many parts per trillion, parts per billion or parts per million of these endocrine disruptors are in the textiles when we put them on our skin, because it’s just an unknown body of research.

Who’s going to pay for that? Not the industry. We have an unknown, but we know we have risks. We have enough science to know there are risks. That’s why I’m a proponent of using plant-based dyes.”

Can Dyed Clothing Really Affect Your Health?

Today, all cellulosic protein and synthetic fibers such as nylons and polyesters use synthetic azo dyes. Even organic cotton T-shirts will use synthetic dyes to obtain the colors pink, green and blue. According to Burgess, up to 70 percent of the global use of dyes right now are azo, which are among the most hazardous. They contain heavy metals and are very difficult to clean up.

It’s rare to find Global Organic Trade Standard (GOTS) certified items. GOTS, which also certifies dyes, is the gold standard certification of organic. It’s really the best, most robust certification you can get. While they allow some synthetic materials, including some dyes, they are very strictly regulated. Now, the fact that synthetic azo dyes are toxic in and of themselves is noncontroversial, but can they actually affect your health when worn on your body, especially after a piece of clothing has been washed a few times?

“That question is something I’ve been asking for over a decade,” Burgess says. “The science I have found is very dated. I found some research about children who supposedly died from cloth diapers stamped with an ink. The ink penetrated the kidney area of the infant. This science was done in the 1920s. After that, I couldn’t find any modern science that showed skin absorption had any toxic effects on the wearer from a synthetic dye …

The question is how big are the molecules of the dye? Can they get into the skin after washing the clothing? We’re washing off what we would call the unbonded molecular components of the dye. The stuff that is bonded to the clothing, does that pose a risk? Can it get into the skin if it’s molecularly bonded? These are all questions [that are still] on the table.”

In other words, no one is really examining this issue to assess the actual risks. Burgess, who is doing research for a future book on fabric dyes has been posing questions to reproductive health doctors at Mount Sinai and University of California San Francisco (UCSF) who focus much of their attention on chemical influences. According to these experts, chemicals such as those found in dyes do appear to affect pregnant mothers and fetuses in utero.

The impacts can be seen, and the chemicals are known to be in dyes, but questions still remain as to if and how they may enter the body if you wear a dyed garment. Burgess cites an interesting German study showing that even when all known sources of endocrine disrupting chemicals were eliminated, women still continued to excrete metabolites of endocrine disrupting chemicals. So, somehow, they were still being exposed to them. Could it be their clothing?

“In the paper, they say, ‘One of the exposures we haven’t looked at is textiles in clothing and what women are wearing. This is an area for further research.’ Who’s doing it? We would really like to know, because it’s an important thing,” Burgess says.

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