Hazardous azo dye plagues local garments market

About 20 out of 300 known azo dye varieties, mostly consisting of a benzidine-based chemical, are listed as carcinogens

Azo dye, a type of dye that is strictly regulated in many countries due to the health risk posed by certain varieties, continues to run rampant in the local garments market of Bangladesh as the country has no controls in place at the moment.

The use of the dye is not particularly an issue for export-oriented factories of the country, as there have been significant improvements to safety and quality standards at the factories since the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. However, local factories have been able to profit by using hazardous, low-quality azo dyes as they are largely free from scrutiny on the matter. 

About 20 out of 300 known azo dye varieties, mostly consisting of a benzidine-based chemical, are listed as carcinogens. This means they have the potential to cause cancer.

In Bangladesh, the largest consumer of azo dye is the garment industry, which uses a great amount of dye to colour a wide range of clothes. But the amount and types of azo dye used in the industry in Bangladesh is unknown. 

Experts say that the use of such dye may put the factory workers as well as end customers of these local garment units at health risk. 

Apart from the export-oriented RMG goods, there is a substantial number of factories that cater to the local demand for clothing. These are located at large and small facilities all over the country but are chiefly present on the outskirts of the capital, namely in Narayanganj, Narsingdi, and Munshiganj. 

According to information from the department of textiles, owners require a go-ahead for setting up textile industries in the country. However, the department does not prescribe how much colour or chemical a textile factory might need to use. This leaves a loophole in the system, experts say.

Azo dye is a kind of synthetic dye that is also widely used in the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetics, textile, and leather industries. 

In today’s fast-consuming world, whenever a synthetic dye particle needs to be used, azo dye is the answer. It offers a vast diversity in usage at low cost along with durability, easy manufacturing and disposable characteristics. 

The dye is formed by an azo group, which consists of two nitrogen atoms linked with each other. It chiefly produces vivid colours such as red, orange and yellow. 

Unregulated local factories: Hotspot of threat

The readymade garment industry (RMG) is the biggest export sector of Bangladesh and in the fiscal year 2020-21, Bangladesh earned a revenue of $31.45 billion from RMG exports. 

Industry insiders said that the carcinogenic azo dyes are completely prohibited as factories in Bangladesh are advancing towards Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) program and 28 variants of azo dye have been listed as hazardous to health. 

The ZDHC is a collaboration of leading brands, value chain affiliates, and associate contributors committed to advancing towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the textile, leather, and footwear value chain.

Monsoor Ahmed, CEO of Bangladesh Textile Mills Association (BTMA), said: “Most of the reputed buyers have strict requirements and they insist on curbing the use of azo dye in manufacturing clothes. The standard is maintained through the testing of the finished clothes through multiple local and international testing organizations. There is no chance for the presence of any harmful chemical in our finished products.” 

Dr Mohammad Abbas Uddin Shiyak, professor of the Department of Dyes and Chemical Engineering of Bangladesh University of Textile, said: “Nearly 700-800 dye factories have been established in the country for the export-oriented market. However, for local customers, this number can go up to 5,000. And our factories import azo dye mainly from India and China, and these countries produce low-quality dye.” 

Meanwhile, the dye penetrates human health from various pathways, causing skin diseases, gastrointestinal issues and cancer.

Why are no regulations in place?

The European Union has banned 22 variants of azo dye citing carcinogenic aromatic amine from textiles. India banned the presence of azo dye first in 1997 by prohibiting the handling of a total of 112 azo- and benzidine-based dyes. 

In Bangladesh, no such law is present. Only benzidine was found to be restricted in the Hazardous Wastes and Shipbreaking Waste Management Rules of 2011. 

“To meet the demand of the local market, our industries use at least 10,000 tons of chemicals every year. Our garment industry has long enjoyed the benefit of relaxation against the profit they bring. But now, it’s time to decide what is our priority,” said Professor Shiyak. 

The academic is involved in preparing a draft of the National Chemical Management Guideline for the textile and RMG industry by the Ministry of Commerce. 

According to  Bangladesh Bank data, in the fiscal year 2020-21, products worth Tk6,329.7 crore were imported that were related to dyeing, tanning, pigmenting and colouring textiles.