Sir William Henry Perkin Accidentally Kickstarted a Chemical Disaster

The Google Doodle icon's discovery has dire consequences today.

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.

Identifier: gri_c00033125000912127 Title: A practical handbook of dyeing and calico-printing. With eleven page-plates, forty-seven specimens of dyed and printed fabrics, and thirty-eight woodcuts Year: 1874 (1870s) Authors: Crookes, William, 1832-1919 Subjects: Dyes and dyeing Calico-printing Publisher: London, Longmans, Green Contributing Library: Getty Research Institute Digitizing Sponsor: Getty Research Institute View Book Page: Book Viewer About This Book: Catalog Entry View All Images: All Images From Book Click here to view book online to see this illustration in context in a browseable online version of this book. Text Appearing Before Image: attacks the iron less. Hydriodate or hydrobromate of aniline maybe used instead of the hydrochlorate, and require a lower temperature. Theproduct of the reaction is repeatedly washed with a lye of caustic soda, whichdecomposes the salts of methylaniline or ethylaniline formed. The oil thusseparated is rectified, and is then sufficiently pure. The product obtained ismixed with 5 or 6 parts of anhydrous chloride of tin with brisk agitation.The mixture is heated to ioo° C, and at the expiration of some hours itbecomes hard and solid. When the reaction is at an end the mass is allowedto cool. It is freed from all foreign matters by boiling the mass with causticsoda and washing it therewith, when the base of the colouring matter remainswith a deep shade. The colour is then regenerated by the addition of anyacid. Instead of the process with chloride of tin we may take:— Sulphate of methylaniline 100 Chlorate of potash, powdered 100 to 150 Water 100 to 150 ■1 ■■■■ APPENDIX, 677 Text Appearing After Image: Hofmann Violet, RRR. and heat for several hours to 160 C. The dye produced is very soluble Inwater even in the cold. 17. Lauths Violet.—According to the last improvement the patentee heatsmeth^laniline to 1200 with half its weight of hydrochloric acid till the colouringmatter is formed ; or to 100° C. with half of its weight of nitrate of copper;or he heats to ioo° C. 1 part of acetate of methylaniline with £ part oxide ofmercury. The longer the mixture is heated the more blue are the shadesproduced. 18. Spillers Purple.—This colour is a violet of a very blue shade, manu-factured by the distinguished firm of Brooke, Simpson, and Spiller, to whosekindness we are indebted for the accompanying specimen. Note About Images Please note that these images are extracted from scanned page images that may have been digitally enhanced for readability - coloration and appearance of these illustrations may not perfectly resemble the original work.
Perkin's manipulation of aniline made purple fabrics available on a large scale — but there were dire consequences.

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.