Textiles industry bad for the environment and our health. What you need to know?

The textile industry has a dirty secret that consumers in the West rarely ever see. Textile dyeing has been causing environmental issues with toxic waters leaking into water supplies as well as some health concerns in the types of chemicals and heavy metals used within the process of dyeing.

China, produces most of the garments and, about 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry.

Photo credit: documentary RiverBlue

The film RiverBlue examines the destruction of rivers in Asia caused by the largely unregulated textile industry. It also connects today’s consumer appetite for fast fashion as a cause of this environmental degradation and explores how manufacturing innovation could help solve this global problem.

Fabric dyes not only affect the environment but also can cause health issue when exposed to them.

Reactive dyes

Reactive dyes are most commonly used in the dyeing of cellulose fibers, like cotton or flax as well as Wool. It is most frequently used for Tie-Dye, Tub or washing machine Dyeing (solid color), Low Immersion Dyeing, Batik, Dye Painting, Silk Painting, Screen & Block Printing or Stenciling, even Tie-dyeing Silk in a Microwave.

Although there is not much health risk with consumers wearing reactive dyed clothing, they can cause problems in plant workers involved in the manufacture the dyes and textile workers who handle the dyes in the dyeing process as the powdered form will have respiratory effects if inhaled.

Disperse dyes

Disperse dyes are the only water-insoluble dyes that dye polyester and acetate fibers. Their molecules are the smallest dye molecules among all dyes.

Certain disperse dyes have been implicated in causing allergic reactions, particularly when they are used for skintight, close-fitting clothes made from synthetic fibers. Disperse dyes, showing low perspiration fastness, are responsible for this effect. Polyester dyed with disperse dyes does not in general pose a problem since the perspiration fastness is high. However, problems can arise with polyamide or acetate rayon dyed with disperse dyes since the low perspiration fastness allows the dyes to migrate to the skin.

Toxic Heavy Metals

Some natural and synthetic dyes require the use of heavy metals to help bond dyes to the fibers. They are defined by their adverse effects on people’s health, for example, chrome, copper, and zinc are known carcinogens, yet are widely used in the production of synthetic dyes. These chemicals are found in the synthetic dyes that are used for all the spring fashions.


Education and learning about the products we purchase and consume is key to reducing environmental and health impact. Natural plant based dyes have been used for thousands of years but alas they are not all safe as some plants are toxic to humans or animals but there are a lot of alternatives and ways to use natural dyes with no environmental impact.

The following are more resources that can further shed light on this.

You can further investigate dyes and health concerns here.
Here are some resources to see textile dye’s environmental and health concerns:
Health and Environmental Hazards of Synthetic Dyes By: Prof. R. B. Chavan
Environment-friendly dyeing processes for cotton by R B Chavan
Health and Safety Executive: Safety Topics of Dyes and Dyeing
Are Natural Dyes Safer than Synthetics? From All about Hand Dyeing.