Toxicology Corner: Artificial Dyes & Coal Tar

I’ve always had a crazy sweet tooth. You might remember those tubes of disgustingly sweet and insanely colored goo that was supposed to be like fake toothpaste? I ate that. Yup, I was that kid. I didn’t think about what was in my candy, I only cared if it was sweet and delicious. So almost all of that candy was brightly colored with artificial dyes.

These dyes, now ubiquitous in our consumer products, are petrochemicals. They are made from coal tar, the thick brownish liquid that is a by-product of processing coal.

So, what are coal tar dyes exactly?

Coal tar color additives are dyes made by combining a number of chemicals produced from distilling bituminous coal; these include compounds like toluene, xylene, or benzene. Nowadays, they’re also made from petroleum, although still referred to as coal tar dyes.

History fact: Mauve was the first color created from coal tar, although not purposefully, just an accidental discovery by a British chemist in 1856.

Widespread use of coal tar dyes started in the early 1900s, and like other chemicals, there was no requirement for testing or safety evaluation before they were released onto the market. This changed after Halloween in 1950, when children all over the US became sick from ingesting candy with Orange No. 1 dye. Further study revealed the dye to be toxic – causing diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, even death (in animal studies). Testing of other coal tar dyes produced similar results, prompting the US government to start regulating and restricting the use of these food dyes. The set of coal tar dyes we use today emerged as those considered safe by the FDA after thorough testing in the early 1960s.

What are the health risks of dyes and coal tar?

Despite approval from the FDA, there has been intermittent concern since the 1970s over the actual safety of any coal tar dyes (and coal tar itself), primarily in terms of links to childhood behavioral problems and cancer.

In the early 1970s, a doctor from California proposed the idea that artificial dyes and flavors were causing or exacerbating hyperactivity in children (ADHD), although he didn’t have much evidence to support this theory. The possible link was studied, but any connection was deemed statistically insignificant. However, in the early 2000s, two studies confirmed a small, but significant influence of artificial dye on behavior in British children. The EU decided this was enough to warrant a warning label on foods, but the FDA dismissed the idea of a warning due to a lack of overwhelming evidence. However, many consumers, and parents especially, are choosing products that are free of artificial dyes. Over the years, we have gathered anecdotal evidence of behavioral changes in children from consuming artificial dyes. So at what point do these personal accounts become solid evidence, not just anecdotes?

Scientists have discovered that Blue No. 1 is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier, but there is no research on the health impacts of this occurrence. This barrier is supposed to protect us from toxins, so if some petrochemicals can cross it, how might that affect our brains and biological functions?

Coal tar itself is a known carcinogen and can be contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic chemicals; the EWG gives it a score of 10, with ample data for support. The EWG scale is 0-10 with 10 being extremely hazardous. It’s also a skin allergen and irritant. Ironically, coal tar is used in many treatments for eczema and psoriasis; it does not cure these conditions, it merely temporarily relieves symptoms and masks the underlying problem.

There is insufficient data to say whether topically applied coal tar and its dyes are linked to cancer, but this is where the precautionary principle comes into play. Given what we know about coal tar and petrochemicals, it just seems unsafe to use them at all.

On a personal note, I used a prescription eczema cream when I was in my late teens/early 20s and my symptoms just spread and worsened over the years. As I learned about toxic chemicals, I realized my medicated cream contained petrochemicals linked to skin irritation. I stopped using it and eliminated all skin products with petrochemicals – it was a world of difference. My eczema subsided and quickly vanished. I haven’t had any flare ups of my eczema in about 7 years.

How to spot coal tar and dyes

Coal tar and its distillates have many names. Look for any of these on ingredient labels:

Coal tar solution, tar, coal, carbo-cort, coal tar solution, coal tar solution USP, crude coal tar, estar, impervotar, KC 261, lavatar, picis carbonis, naphtha, high solvent naphtha, naphtha distillate, benzin B70, petroleum benzin.

Color additives are usually towards the bottom of an ingredient list. Look for these:

FD&C: Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, Red No. 3 and Red No. 40. Orange B and Citrus Red No. 2 (allowed, but with restricted use).

D&C: Black No. 2, Black No. 3, Green No. 5, Orange No. 5, Red No. 6, Red No. 7, Red No. 21, Red No. 22, Red No. 27, Red No. 28, Red No. 30, Red No. 33, Red No. 36, and Yellow No. 10.

Lakes: These dyes are made from FD&C colors and then prepared using metal salts as binders to prevent color bleeding.

Additionally, P-phenylenediamine is a specific coal tar dye that is approved for use in hair dyes, although a warning label that it can irritate the skin must accompany it. There is strong epidemiological evidence linking this chemical to tumor growth and cancer.

Note on ingredient labels: Color additives may also include a CI (Color Index) number, which is the European Union method of identification. This applies to all color additives, including non-petrochemicals like titanium dioxide and Annatto.

Status on this issue?

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), the FDA does regulate color additives in food and cosmetic products. All food-coloring additives must be labeled, with the exception of dyes that come from vegetables, minerals, or animals. The ambiguous “natural color” is most likely not some crafty way of hiding toxic chemicals.

FD&C dyes are approved for food, whereas D&C colors are allowed in “non-food” items, like personal care products or medicine/drugs. This situation is an example of how ridiculously weak citizen health protection is – we still absorb chemicals through our skin that can cause bodily harm and why would an ingredient be unsafe in food, yet acceptable for medicine that’s ingested?

If you want to learn more about the specific dyes and their usage, see the FDA’s Additive Status List.

So, I do have some good news! A handful of companies are starting to remove artificial dyes from their products regardless of laws or regulations. They’re switching to natural sources of dyes, including turmeric, beets, paprika, and annatto.

Companies switching include Nestlé USA, General Mills, Kraft, Frito-Lay, Kellogg’s, Campbell’s, and Mondelez International (Oreos/Sour Patch Kids). Black Forest Gummies are another candy that does not contain artificial dye. The list of foods available without toxic dyes is certainly growing! Just keep checking those labels to find safe products, support or encourage companies that are eliminating toxic dyes, and keep demanding safer ingredients from all companies!



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