The Toxic History of Color

The Toxic History of Color

Ren wears cotton fabric and silk fabric dyed with madder, iron, indigo, and weld. Fabric dyed by Misa Chhan


Words by Whitney Bauck

Photographs by Arianna Lago

Styling by Rita Zebdi

For all of human history, our species have used both natural and synthetic dyes—but have we taken our obsession with color to an extreme?

The story of human history is often told as one of a desperate struggle for survival, dominated by war and conquest, plagues and empires. But it could perhaps be narrated just as well through the quieter language of color.


Our species has been finding ways to color the world around us for as long as we’ve existed. Our nearest ancient relatives, Neanderthals, painted cave walls in Spain at least 60,000 years ago using red ochre, a naturally occurring mineral dug from the earth. Even older artifacts suggest that Neanderthals may have been using red ochre as a pigment as far back as 250,000 years ago. Since then, color-making has followed humans everywhere, from the brilliant blues of ancient Egypt to the beguiling purples of China’s Han dynasty.


“No matter who you are or where you are on Earth, there is this instinct when you see a colorful rock to pick it up and look at it. And then, it’s human nature to say, What can I do with that?” said Melonie Ancheta, a color researcher and artist based in the Pacific Northwest. “It’s incalculable what we can learn about the past through the lens of pigments that we can’t learn through any other means.” 


Ancheta first started studying the colors used by Native people of the Northwest Coast, particularly the Haida and Tlingit, almost 30 years ago. An artist who creates a range of painted works from bentwood cedar boxes to regalia, Ancheta’s research into color-making practices was born out of her desire to use traditional pigments in her own work. While her scholarship has focused on the particular practices of peoples living in connection with one specific landscape, what she has learned offers a wider window into how color was gathered and utilized by people everywhere for millennia: in short, they gathered colors from naturally occuring materials in the world around them.

Fabric dyed by Misa Chhan

For people on the Northwest Coast, that meant using ochre dug from the earth to make red, charcoal or burnt bone to make black, and the minerals celadonite and vivianite to make green and blue, respectively. In other parts of the world, different colors—and materials to make them from—reigned. According to the book Chromatopia, by Australia-based paint-maker David Coles, Britons used the plant woad to make blue, Phoenicians in what is now Lebanon extracted Tyrian purple from a sea snail, the Chinese colored clothing and food using saffron, and Incan and Aztec societies prized the intense scarlet created by grinding up cochineal insects.


Despite the diversity of materials used and colors created, people around the world were alike in that they made colors from elements or creatures that were concrete and recognizable in the natural world, whether the transmitter of color was a mollusk or a rock. 


But that began to change in the 1800s with the industrialization of synthetic colorants. In 1856, an 18-year-old English chemist named William Perkin was trying to use coal tar, a by-product of the coal industry, to create a treatment for malaria, when he stumbled on a way to turn coal tar sludge into a mauve dye instead. Perkin’s discovery jump-started a revolution in synthetic dye-making that would change the way most of the world made color. It wasn’t long before other chemists began to figure out how to synthesize seemingly every color of the rainbow from coal tar and other petrochemical products.


In his book about Perkin’s life, Mauve, British journalist Simon Garfield chronicles how Perkin’s contemporaries hailed his discovery as a kind of triumph over the natural world. “It is impossible to foresee the extent to which chemistry may ultimately, in the production of things needful, supersede the present vital energies of nature,” said Richard Owen, president of the British Association, in 1858. Perkin’s chemistry mentor and teacher, August Hofmann, declared that England would become the greatest color exporter in the world: “she may ere long send her coal-derived blues to indigo-growing India, her tar-distilled crimson to cochineal-producing Mexico, and her fossil substitutes for quercitron and safflower to China and Japan,” he wrote. 

Above: Misa wears silk fabric dyed with marigolds. Fabric dyed by Misa Chhan. Below: Kaylee wears second-hand cotton shirt dyed with avocado skins. Fabric dyed by Arianna Lago

Though England ceded its dominance as a dye-maker initially to Germany and then later to China, Hofmann wasn’t far off the mark about one thing: the advent of synthetic dyes decimated much of the natural dye trade. Gone were the days of coloring the objects used in daily life with materials the average person might recognize in their local landscape. The age of the chemistry lab as color-maker had dawned—and has only expanded since then. According to Phil Patterson of U.K.-based Colour Connections Textile Consultancy, more than 99% of textile dyes in use today are synthetic. A similar breakdown is likely for other color-heavy industries.


What Perkin helped kickstart was “impressive in terms of chemistry, but in terms of safety, some of the chemicals and dyes that were made were horrible—causing factory fires and pollution and stuff like that,” said Patterson. “Some would say it was a wonderful time in terms of industrial revolution, but it was also a time of environmental damage and environmental ignorance.”


Multicolored waste regularly found its way to the waterways near dyehouses, poisoning local ecosystems. Customers complained of skin inflammation after wearing aniline dyes of the kind Perkin helped invent. One chemist in 1870 found that, of 14 samples of clothing colored with commercial magenta dyes, nine of them contained 2% arsenic and five contained between 4.3-6.5% arsenic, writes Garfield. One woman living near a dye-making factory died and was found with arsenic in her organs, the same poison that contaminated all the wells within 200 yards of the factory. And it was apparently “not very uncommon” for children to die in their sleep due to poisoning from their wallpaper, details Garfield’s book.


High-profile scandals have persisted beyond Perkin’s century and into our own. One recent example occurred in 2007, when Mattel recalled millions of Barbies and other toys due to unsafe levels of lead in the paint used on them. A few days later, the founder of the company that was blamed for the toxic paint died by suicide. 

Our species has been finding ways to color the world around us for as long as we’ve existed.

In spite of such tragedies, synthetic dyes are safer now than they’ve ever been, said color consultant Patterson. And some of the biggest problems today aren’t even from harsh or toxic chemistry, he noted: in the textile industry, at least, they arise instead from the improper disposal of more benign ingredients.


“The biggest issues from a pollution point of view are safe chemicals—things like starches, oils, waxes, or salt, which is used in large quantities for dyeing cotton,” he said. Salt might be so safe you can eat it, but if you dump loads of it into a freshwater river, it will still kill off local species and wreak havoc on the ecosystem. 


“Putting biodegradable things into rivers without treating them properly causes far more problems than toxic chemicals, carcinogens, and the like,” he added. This is partly because biodegradable chemicals enter the environment in much higher quantities than known carcinogens, which tend to be more tightly regulated. “That’s not to say that it’s okay to put out toxic chemicals—it certainly is not, and you shouldn’t be using them. But people don’t want to face the fact that safe chemicals cause problems too.”


When toxic chemistry is involved, part of the barrier to managing it properly is that the responsibility to clean up gets passed off to those without expertise or resources to do so, said Raúl A. Poutou-Piñales, a researcher at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia. “In most cases, the industry that produced the color is not the industry that uses the color,” he pointed out. This fracturing of producer and consumer of chemicals can make it harder to ensure that those with the capacity or know-how to properly remediate potential pollution are present when that pollution is poised to enter the environment. Though Poutou-Piñales and his colleagues are looking into better ways to manage pollution caused by synthetic colorants, ultimately, he said, better government regulation of pollution is key to minimizing the damage.

Ren wears cotton and silk fabric dyed with avocado, cochineal, goldenrod, indigo, iron, madder, and weld. Fabric dyed by Misa Chhan

With the last couple of centuries in view, it might be tempting to present the progress of color simplistically, as progressing from clean, healthy natural colors to toxic synthetic ones. 


But the truth is not quite so linear. For all the ancient dyes, paints, and pigments made from harmless sources, there were also a host of colors made from deadly materials, notes Coles in Chromatopia. Lead paint was popular for millennia, despite the fact that prolonged exposure to it is fatal. Realgar was used as both a rich orange pigment and a rat poison in the Middle Ages because it was so toxic. And the Romans used slave labor to mine for orpiment, which yields a gold paint, because they knew it was so poisonous that mining it was essentially a death sentence. 


“People would have you believe that synthetic is bad and natural is good. And it’s far more nuanced than that,” Patterson said. 


Perhaps a more accurate depiction of what has shifted over time would focus on people’s relationship with color, rather than the likelihood that the colorants in question might cause harm. According to Ancheta, the synthetic color revolution shifted people’s perception of color and what it meant in a profound way. 


“People lost any understanding of what their materials were in Europe and in Western practice,” she said. In cultures like those she’s studied on the Northwest Coast, “every site where materials were gathered had some kind of meaning. The people had relationships with these places, they knew the animals that lived there and the plants that grew there…there was this whole relationship that we no longer have with our Earth.”

Tian wears silk apron dyed with indigo, Olderbrother cotton shorts dyed with mulberry wood and tannin, silk bonnet dyed with pomegranate skin and turmeric, upcycled silk rope. Fabric dyed by Lillian Li
Tian wears silk apron dyed with indigo, silk pillowcases dyed with avocado pit, turmeric, and indigo, silk bonnet dyed with pomegranate skin, indigo, and turmeric, upcycled silk rope. Fabric dyed by Lillian Li

Once pigment was something you could go out and buy thoughtlessly, rather than something painstakingly identified and gathered in the wild from a place you had to know intimately, its significance changed. Ancheta pointed to a study that found that the Himba tribe of Namibia can discern subtle differences between shades of green that are imperceptible to most of the world as an indication that when colors mean something concrete to us—“in that desert landscape…green meant food, or water, or something else related to sustenance,” she noted—we actually see them more fully.


As far as Patterson is concerned, it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to wind back the clock on synthetic colorants, which is why he’s spent much of his career trying to help textile dyers work to reduce their impact. Ultimately, he believes, the fashion industry and other colorant-guzzling sectors need to reduce how much stuff they’re making if they’re serious about getting their environmental impact under control. 


“The main problem is volumes manufactured. It just keeps going up and up and up,” he said. If we’re really serious about reducing the impact that our appetite for color has on our own ecosystem and human health, it will mean a shift away from producing and consuming so much stuff—a hard pill to swallow for a culture oriented toward endless consumption as a symbol of prosperity and a means of self-expression. For now, Patterson and others like him are trying to work within the system to “make the mainstream a little better.” 

Ren wears cotton dress and scarf dyed with indigo. Fabric dyed by Misa Chhan

Ancheta is taking a different approach: trying to help facilitate the tiny but burgeoning world of natural color-makers in the face of a synthetic color-dominated world. Toward that end, Ancheta founded Pigments Revealed International (PRI) to bring pigment-makers and natural dyers together to share resources. The goal is to preserve and innovate on the kinds of color-making resources that might allow for a cultural shift toward practices that are more in tune with the history of both human communities and local landscapes.  


While Ancheta recognizes that the “purist” attitude she brings to her own art-making can’t always extend to her daily life—if she needs to paint a wall in her home, she admits that she’s more likely to head to the local hardware store than into the woods in search of color—she believes deeply that studying and emulating ancient forms of pigment-making can have a restorative effect on both the environment and culture. 


This approach may not erase all humanity’s colorant wrongs, and Ancheta acknowledges that she doesn’t know how the kind of systems-level change could happen at this point. But learning from the past and maintaining the practice of land-based traditions in the present seems like one way to at least inch toward a future when another reality might take hold. And Ancheta says explosive growth in the traditional and natural pigments space in recent years is a reason for hope.


“I see so many people connecting with their environment on a really intimate level, going and looking for pigments, engaging in the landscape,” she said. “When you walk away from that place with a handful of material, you have a different relationship with it—and you have a tendency not to waste it.”

Tian wears silk cape dyed with black walnut hulls, avocado pits, turmeric, and indigo, silk apron dyed with indigo, Olderbrother hemp pants dyed with pollen, mulberry wood, and nut tannin extract, upcycled silk rope. Fabric dyed by Lillian Li

TALENT Kaylee Gibson, Ren Leslie (Margaux the Agency), Tian Zhang (Vision LA) NATURAL DYE ARTISTS Misa Chhan, Lillian Li PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT Lance Stewart RETOUCHING Paul Drozdowski

This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “Of the Deepest Dye.”

Shop Atmos Volume 07: Prism

A prism is a multidimensional body that refracts, disperses, or in some cases, distorts light. Atmos Volume 07: Prism is a study of light, color, dimension, and perspective. It asks such questions as: How do we find the light in a world that can feel so dark? How do our identities shape the lenses through which we experience reality? How do we move past binary thinking and embrace a more prismatic or nuanced view of the world? How do ideas disseminate and refract? What role does transparency play in that process? What symbolism do specific colors hold, in both the human and natural world?

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