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Not to Dye for: Harmful Textile Dyeing

According to a report from Cambridge University, approximately 50,000  tons of dye are discharged into global water systems from textile industries.

When chemicals used in making synthetic dyes find their way into water bodies, they affect human health and cause the death of water ecosystems

This problem is especially experienced in developing countries, who are still struggling to enforce high standards of safety regulations. Factory workers often use harmful dyes without protective clothing or use dyes laced with banned ingredients. Some examples of harmful chemicals contained in dyes include: anililine, dioxin, formaldehyde and heavy metals such as zinc.

These substances, when consumed or even come into contact with human skin, cause negative effects ranging from hormone disruption in children and cancer in factory workers and people drinking contaminated water.

Chemicals such as anililin are also very flammable, making dyes a fire hazard in the workplace.

Effects of Dye Pollution on Water Bodies

Fabric dyeing uses a lot of water for treating and washing processes. When the dyeing process is complete, most textile companies dump the used water into the rivers and other water bodies as opposed to recycling it.

“The world bank estimates that at least 20% of water pollution comes from textile dyeing.”

The water is usually contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals such as mercury, lead, nickel, cobalt, cadmium, sulphur and arsenic.

“Metals such as lead have been known to cause neurological damage in young children.”

This problem is worst felt in South Asia, which is where most of the world’s textile production takes place. In India for instance, there are at least 50 large dye plants and over 1,000 small-sized plants. Though the large plants might take measures to control pollution, the small-scale plants might not.

China is yet another example of a country that suffers from severe water pollution, owing to chemical dyes dumped in rivers from factories. The East River in Xintang for example is known to be polluted by dyed water from denim factories.

Countries that uphold higher safety standards require textile factories to separate harmful chemicals from the dye waste so that the water dumped into rivers is cleaner. Though this practice keeps water bodies safe, it cannot be said with certainty that the water dumped back into the rivers is free of dye chemicals.

What can be done to reduce dye pollution?

Every stakeholder a role to play in ensuring that the dyes used in textiles are safe for the workers producing them, for the environment and for the consumers purchasing the finished garments.

Fashion professionals and brands should make it their business to be aware of the dyeing processes of the textiles they purchase.

Governments should be at the forefront of creating and enforcing policies that promote safe use and disposal of dyes. There should also be stricter quality control measures, including requiring textile manufacturers to disclose the finishing products used in textile manufacture.

Environmental bodies should serve as watch guards and actively champion environmental protection.

Consumers should demand to know what dyeing processes have been used on the items they choose to purchase.

The Textile industries should

  • explore new production methods that use low amounts of water. These methods should also be made cheap so that small textile factories can afford them and not use illegal, cheap dyes that are extremely harmful. An example is the use of activated carbon instead of water to absorb chemicals produced during dyeing.

  • recycle water instead of dumping it in rivers. For instance, after chemicals are separated from the water, the water can be reused in the factory.

  • invest money in exploring a shift from harmful synthetic chemical-based dyes to natural dyes.

  • be better educated on methods of treatment and storage of industrial waste.

As more people become more aware of measures that can be taken to reduce the damage of dye production, perhaps we can look at a brighter, pollution-reduced future.


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