Saint Patrick’s Day Green River: Is It Safe?

For over 60 years, Chicago has taken pride in its longtime St. Patrick’s Day tradition of dyeing the Chicago river green. Every year people from all over the city gather in anticipation for this beloved event. It is a great time for family and friends to gather and spend the day together admiring the city. But what about our friends under the water? How do they feel about this tradition?

While the green dye looks pretty and bright, people think it is important to ask how this is affecting the environment. There are more than 70 species of fish living in the Chicago river, and many are questioning whether the dye is safe for the city’s aquatic population and their home. The dye used when this tradition originated in the early 60’s was an oil-based fluorescein, commonly used to detect leaks. Environmentalists at the time successfully argued that it was toxic and could be causing damage to the river and its inhabitants. This resulted in a switch to a powdered, vegetable-based dye. An article from Green Matters by Lizzy Rosenberg states, “…so in 1966, the plumber’s union transitioned to using what’s currently: a low-impact orange powder that’s made from vegetables. The mixture, which they call “Leprechaun Dust,” turns green as soon as it hits the water and lasts for 48 hours.” The dye that the city uses today is a food grade dye that is commonly used in medicine and hasn’t caused any apparent issues for the environment.

Although the dye that the city currently uses isn’t harmful, environmentalists fear for the ideas that might begin to formulate. Many argue that dyeing the river brings about the idea that it can be treated like a decoration rather than a habitat and protected natural resource. There is concern that people won’t treat the river with the respect it deserves, and will view it as nothing more than a tourist attraction. However, through educating the public about the significance of the Chicago River, we can strive to protect one of the city’s most prized possessions.