Ask Ignacio: Green Chicago River

What do they put in the river to make it turn green for St. Patrick’s Day? Whatever it is, it can’t be good.

-Super King

Who doesn’t love seeing an entire body of water change color? It’s quite a feat phenomenon!

So, let me learn you something.

Chicago has been dyeing the river green since 1962, originally using a fluorescein dye. This dye was typically used to trace sewage leaks. The first year they used 100 pounds of it, ostensibly to create a green path to Ireland, but later cut that down to 25 pounds.

The question here is: does dyeing the river result in a dying river?

*Pat myself on the back for being clever*

We can assume so, because the EPA later outlawed the use of fluorescein dye. The formula was then changed to a mix supposedly involving 40 pounds of vegetable dye. The Chicago Plumbers Unions, who membership concocts and distributes the mix, keeps the current recipe close to the vest, so unfortunately, I can’t review the exact effects of the chemicals used to dye the river.

Without knowing what exactly is in the mix, all we have to go on are the words of Laurene von Klaun, then executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, from a 2005 interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2005:

“It's not the worst thing that happens to the river. When you look closely at the problem, it's not something that needs to be our priority right now. . . . Studies show [that] for creatures that live in the river now, [the dye] is probably not harmful. However, one day when we have brown trout and native darters, we'll have to re-evaluate and look for new, great ways to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.”

This viewpoint is still held to be true by the current executive director, Margaret Frisbie. Echoing the line, “It’s not the worst thing that happens to the river.”

In conclusion, the answer to our question seems to be…elusive.

We can’t say that the dye used today is completely innocuous. We can say the dyeing of the river is very far from being on the top list of problems facing the river. To put this in perspective over a billion gallons of partially treated waste are dumped into the river everyday.

To me, this non-answer raises more questions. What IS on the top list of problems facing the river? We can’t assume the dye is completely harmless – so why are we still doing it?

Alas, those can be questions for next time. As always, if you want me to answer these questions just ask.

May the wind always be at your respective backs,