When he was only 18 years old, William Perkin was enjoying Easter break from London's Royal College of Chemistry -- by experimenting with coal tar. It was 1856, and he was searching for a way to synthesize quinine, an antimalarial drug. What he created instead, accidentally, was the very first artificial dye -- mauveine. An intense purple which, if made commercially, could make this expensive, aristocratic color accessible to the masses.
So, that's what he did (and he made a fortune). And his discovery (and subsequent development of the industrial production of synthetic dyes) was not only the birth of that industry, but the birth of the synthetic chemical industry as a whole. Perkin's dye chemistry became the foundation for pharmaceuticals, plastics, and much more. All from one precocious teen's geeky spring break.
Why am I telling you this? Well, I'm a bit of a science geek myself, and I find this singular moment in history quite fascinating. An accidental discovery that propelled a revolution in chemistry and modern living. But I also wanted to share this history to highlight a simple fact: Petroleum-derived dyes are a really old chemical invention.
Now, old isn't always bad, but in this case we've learned a lot of eye-opening science about the health impacts of these chemicals in the past 150+ years. Namely, petroleum-derived dyes aren't safe. Created for Perkin's original intention, textiles, these artificial colors leave a wake of toxic pollution. Worse yet, they're increasingly used in products we slather on our skin and feed to our children.
And, while many have been banned from these more intimate uses, a handful still linger. Here are eight offenders and their associated health risks, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
- FD&C Blue No. 1 -- Linked to kidney tumors in mice, effects on nerve cells, and hypersensitivity reactions.
Sadly, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 -- the worst offenders -- constitute over 90 percent of food dye production and consumption and they're popping up in an increasing amount of products we use every day.
Where are food dyes hiding in your house?
I wonder if William Perkin ever imagined such widespread consumption of synthetic dyes? I wonder what he would have thought about the safety of eating something made from coal tar (even given his limited understanding of toxicology)? Unlike when he was growing up, or our grandparents, or even when we were kids, today's artificial colors are nearly ubiquitous. And, since just 1955, there's been a fivefold increase in dye consumption in the U.S.
Meanwhile, in Europe, most foods that contain artificial dyes must carry a warning label. Red 40 is not recommended for consumption by children -- and it's completely banned in Denmark, Belgium, France and Switzerland. The labeling requirement alone has prompted most companies to switch to naturally-derived dyes. Who wants to market a food with a warning label?
Unfortunately for those of us in the U.S., not only has the FDA let us down in continuing to allow these egregious ingredients, so have the American companies most families rely on for everyday products and foods -- like Kraft, who makes their iconic mac-n-cheese for U.S. consumers using Yellow 5 and 6. But, in the EU, it's made using natural dyes. What gives?
Petroleum-derived colors are cheaper. Plain and simple. But they're not safe and they're completely unnecessary given modern sourcing and manufacturing. It doesn't take someone with Will Perkin's acumen to figure that out. It's time to end this chapter of chemical history and say "the end" to these questionable hues.
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