ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Dye Safety

This past week I was discussing the safety of dyes with my new on-line friend Carolynn. She had given up using dyes 30 years ago over concerns about the health risks associated. I advised her to email Paula Burch about a specific concern she had regarding the presence of benzene in Procion MX Fibre Reactive Dyes (these are the dyes I use). Paula Burch is an expert on dye chemistry (and has a Ph.D. in Biology) from Rice University. Paula responded with a most thorough and informative post on her blog.

This reminded me that I had written an article regarding dye safety in my quarterly e-newsletter back in February 2009. I also had contacted Paula Burch for an opinion about the scary stories I had been hearing that I suspected were just that: scary stories. I've reprinted my article below, or you can access the original e-newsletter in my newsletter archive.

In the last few months I have heard a number of scary stories and misinformation circulating about the safety of dyes. For example, at an out of town quilting conference I met a world-renowned quilting teacher who reported to me that most of the early fabric dyers have died from exposure to dyes. I am plagued by a rather questioning and cynical nature and this sounded very dubious to me. The safety of dyes is a regular topic of discussion on the on-line DyersLIST, of which I am a member. We all take the issue seriously and if this story is true we would have heard about it there. When I see some evidence that the dyes I use are harmful (when used responsibly) I will be the first to discontinue their use, but I won’t be swayed by heresay.

It also occurred to me that the early dyers started out in the 1970’s (with the advent of the Art Quilt Movement) when most of them were probably in their 50’s (the average age of most students in my classes). This would put them now well into their 80’s and 90’s, which is a very good life span. Many of the early dyers who started dyeing at a younger age, like Caryl Bryer Fallert, are alive and well and have reported that they didn’t always take proper safety precautions (such as protective masks) in the early days.

Whenever I want to find out the scoop on anything dyeing related I turn to the experts on the DyersLIST. In particular, I value the opinion of Paula Burch, who holds a Ph.D. in Biology from Rice University . The topic of Burch’s Ph.D. dissertation was dye chemistry, oxygen radicals, the photodynamic effect, and DNA damage. You can visit her website at http://www.pburch.net/. In the dyeing section you will find valuable instructions about dyeing and information about dye safety.

It is important to distinguish which dyes you are talking about because not all dyes are created equal. I am speaking here specifically about Procion MX fibre-reactive dyes. Some of the early dyes used may very well have been more dangerous than what we use today. There seems to be a trend now among some dyers toward using more natural and eco-friendly dyes. But as Paula Burch states, “The claim that natural dyes are inherently safer than synthetic dyes is the result of ignorance.” Many natural dyes require the use of mordants that contain metals that can be highly toxic. Paula's response to my question is still available on-line.

Be aware that you can always ask for the MSDS safety sheets from dye suppliers. In fact, many companies have them available on-line. I have researched these for the dyes I use, and they all state that there are no high or moderate level risks associated with Procion MX fibre reactive dyes, but all contain some warnings with regard to people with a pre-disposition to asthma.

Burch goes on to say that “No hand dyer has ever been killed by exposure to Procion MX dyes. The real risk of working with Procion MX and other fiber reactive dyes is that of developing a respiratory allergy to the dye. You must be careful to avoid breathing the dye powder in order to reduce your risk of developing this problem.”

Burch also offers the following wisdom on the environmental impact of Procion MX dyes. “If you are dyeing by hand, by yourself, there is no harm in the relatively small quantities of dye that you may dump down the drain. There is more danger to you and your
children in the neurotoxins commonly applied to your neighbors' lawns as insecticides, and the fertilizers applied to your neighbors' lawns are far more harmful to the environment than the dyes you dispose of, as fertilizer run-off leads to the production of oxygen-free dead zones in the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico.”

The dyes and chemicals we use in the fibre-reactive dyeing process should always be treated with proper precautions. This means a safety mask or respirator to prevent inhalation of dye powder, protective gloves, and dedicated dyeing tools. Dye powder is very fine and light and can easily become airborne. Because it is attracted to wet or damp surfaces, placing a damp newspaper on the surface you are working on while mixing dyes will help cut down on the amount of powder that can circulate in the air.

If you are a dyer who would like to learn more about dyeing and have access to a group of knowledgeable experts, you may be interested in becoming a member of the DyersLIST.


  1. Thanks for this post - now I know what to answer when somebody asks about the "danger" in my dyes !!

  2. I saw your question on the dyerslist, and wondered why you were questioning the safety aspect now--thanks for answering that question. I dye a lot, and always use a mask whenever the dye is in powder form. I've heard that many of the workers in places like Indonesia or Thailand get sick from conditions in the batiking processes, but who knows what else they might be exposed to there--I think that's where a lot of the rumors, in general, got started.

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