Sir William Henry Perkin Accidentally Kickstarted a Chemical Disaster

British chemist Sir William Henry Perkin received an honorary Google Doodle on Monday for his discovery of the first synthetic dye, a purplish-pink hue called mauveine, in 1856. Today would have been his 180th birthday. Fortunately, that means enough time has passed since his discovery for public health experts to realize how dangerous his invention is. When he started producing the dye, Perkin had no idea how much it would endanger the local environment. Even though we know now, we’re still not doing a very good job of containing it.

Perkin’s dye factory notoriously turned London’s waterways different colors downstream of where his factory sat. In addition to turning the river purple, his endeavors occasionally also tinted the river in shades of Perkin’s Green, Britannia Violet, and alizarin red. Thomas Hagar, writing in the 2006 book The Demon Under the Microscope, notes: “Soon it was said that the water in Grand Union Canal changed color every week, depending on what shade Perkin was making.”

It shouldn’t take a genius chemist to realize that it’s not a good idea to flood a city’s supply of drinking water with dye derived from coal tar, a toxic byproduct of burning coal at high temperatures.

Perkin's manipulation of aniline made purple fabrics available on a large scale — but there were dire consequences.Flickr / Internet Archive Book Images

After all, both Perkin and his mentor, August Wilhelm von Hofmann of the Royal College of Chemistry, were engrossed with figuring out how to turn coal tar into something useful, because otherwise the sticky, foul-smelling substance would be dumped directly into the water or into open pits, according to Tom’s River, a book on Perkin and the environmental effects of his discovery by Pulitzer Prize winner Dan Fagin.

It was no secret that coal tar was itself quite noxious, he writes: “Burning it produced hazardous black smoke, and burying it killed any nearby vegetation. The two most common disposal practices for coal tar, dumping it into open pits or waterways, were obviously unsavory.”

The key to the creation of Perkin’s synthetic dyes was the compound aniline, a hydrocarbon derived from the coal tar. Chemists in Switzerland and elsewhere eventually figured out how Perkin manipulated aniline, and thus the synthetic dye industry was born. A few years later, a rash of aniline-induced health problems followed suit. Fagin wrote about the aftermath of Perkin’s discovery in the New York Times in 2013:

In 1895, a Frankfurt surgeon named Ludwig Wilhelm Carl Rehn began noticing unusual numbers of bladder cancers — he called them “aniline tumors” — among workers in dye plants. Whether aniline was the specific cause was hard to determine, since by then, chemical manufacturers had expanded well beyond aniline and were using dozens of compounds derived from coal and oil to make dyes and many other products. What was obvious was that these synthetic hydrocarbons were leaving a trail of tumors wherever they were manufactured.

The effects of Perkin’s discovery still continue. In 2012, 39 tons of aniline left over from dyeing processes spilled into China’s Zhuo Zhang River, causing panic in cities along the water that were suddenly without a water source. We know now that aniline is a “probable human carcinogen” and “very toxic.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, aniline’s short- and long-term effects mostly affect the respiratory system, like lung irritation and congestion, but chronic exposure might also impair the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.

While Perkin no doubt deserves recognition for his accidental discovery that transformed global fashion, his birthday should also serve as a reminder that the consequences of his invention are still being felt today.