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Dry colors may have cancer causing asbestos dust and other toxic substances

Written By mediavigil on Friday, March 18, 2022 | 8:28 PM

 Briefing Paper

March 2022

Dry colors may have cancer causing asbestos dust and other toxic substances

Brighter the color, greater the danger of toxicity

Holi, a festival of myriad colors -- red, yellow, blue, green, magenta, purple, orange, golden, black, silver etc marks the harvest of rabi crop and the arrival of spring which was traditionally celebrated using natural colored extracts from herbs and plants.

In the current industrial chemical dye age, unwittingly these natural herbs and plants got replaced by synthetic dyes, most of which contain a plethora of chemicals. In general there are three categories of colors in the market – pastes, dry powder and water colors. These could be hazardous. If hazardous ones are mixed with oil and applied to the skin, the harmful chemicals can enter easily through the skin into the body system with both short-term and long-term adverse health consequences. Playing with toxic industrial dyes often results in various skin and eye related complaints in a significant number of people immediately following the celebration.

Looks of seemingly harmless and apparently pleasing colors could be toxic. This is because of the presence of cheap materials like mica, acids, alkalis, pieces of glass, which not only induce skin disorders like abrasion, irritation, itching but can impair vision, cause respiratory problems and also cancer.

The green/bluish-green colors are related to higher incidence of ocular toxicity. Analysis of eyewash fluid collected from the patients exposed to these colors revealed it.

Medical researchers recommend that use of such toxic colors should be discouraged, and all doctors should caution people against using synthetic dyes. This case report highlights the need to put manufacturing of Holi colors under guidelines of the Food and Drug Cosmetic Act and the Bureau of Indian Standards. Colors which are used during the festival merit examination.


Holi pastes contain very hazardous chemicals that can have severe health effects. Some of them are listed below according to their color:

Color Chemical Health Effects 
Black Lead oxide Renal Failure
Green Copper Sulphate Eye Allergy & Temporary Blindness
Silver Aluminium Bromide Carcinogenic
Blue Prussian Blue Contract Dermatitis
Red Mercury Sulphite Highly toxic can cause skin cancer

Dry Colors

Dry colors or gulals have two components—a colorant which is toxic and a base which could either be asbestos or silica both of which are capable of causing health hazards.

Silica may dry as well as chap the skin and lung infections.

Asbestos, a known human carcinogen enters the lung. It can result in lung cancer even in micro-quantities i.e. the slightest of exposure increases risk. Asbestos is a group of naturally occurring fibrous minerals with current or historical commercial usefulness due to their extraordinary tensile strength, poor heat conduction, and relative resistance to chemical attack. For these reasons, asbestos is used for insulation in buildings and as an ingredient in a number of products, such as roofing shingles, water supply lines, and fire blankets, as well as clutches and brake linings, gaskets, and pads for automobiles.The main forms of asbestos are chrysotile (white asbestos) and crocidolite (blue asbestos). Other forms include amosite, anthophylite, tremolite and actinolite. All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans. Exposure to asbestos, including chrysotile, causes cancer of the lung, larynx, and ovaries, and also mesothelioma (a cancer of the pleural and peritoneal linings). Asbestos exposure is also responsible for other diseases such as asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs), and plaques, thickening and effusion in the pleura.All forms of asbestos is banned in some 70 countries. India has banned mining of asbestos minerals but not its trade, manufacture and use. 85 % of asbestos used in India comes from Russia. World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended its ban for elimination of asbestos related diseases. 

With resolution 60.26, the World Health Assembly requested WHO to carry out a global campaign for the elimination of asbestos-related diseases "…bearing in mind a differentiated approach to regulating its various forms - in line with the relevant international legal instruments and the latest evidence for effective interventions…". Cost-effective interventions for prevention of occupational lung diseases from exposure to asbestos are among the policy options for implementing the "Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases" (2013-2020), as endorsed by the Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly in resolution WHA66.10 in 2013.

Eliminating asbestos-related diseases is particularly targeted at countries still using chrysotile asbestos, in addition to assistance in relation to exposures arising from historical use of all forms of asbestos.

WHO, in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other intergovernmental organizations and civil society, works with countries towards elimination of asbestos-related diseases by:

    recognizing that the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos;
    providing information about solutions for replacing asbestos with safer substitutes and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate its replacement;
    taking measures to prevent exposure to asbestos in place and during asbestos removal (abatement);
    improving early diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation services for asbestos-related diseases;
    establishing registries of people with past and/or current exposures to asbestos and organizing medical surveillance of exposed workers; and
    providing information on the hazards associated with asbestos-containing materials and products, and by raising awareness that waste containing asbestos should be treated as hazardous waste.
The major constituent of the colorants in gulals are mostly heavy metals that are known systemic toxins. These heavy metals not only get deposited in the kidneys, liver and bones but are also capable of disrupting the metabolic functions.

Heavy metals Health effects
Lead Learning disability
Chromium Bronchial asthma, Allergies
Cadmium Itai Ita disease (fragile bones)
Nickel Dermatitis pneumonia
Mercury Minimata disease (disorder of the nervous system)
Zinc Fever
Iron Skin becomes sensitive to light

Lead is the most dangerous of all the heavy metals found in holi colors. It can affect the nervous system, kidneys and the reproductive system. Among children, it can affect the physical and mental growth, even in small quantities. If a pregnant woman is exposed to lead, it can be carried to the unborn child and damage its nervous system. It can even result in premature birth, low birth weight, miscarriage or abortion.

Cadmium has been classified a probable human carcinogen. In an attempt to ascertain the presence of heavy metals in gulals,

Red colors are likely to contain mercury which is a very toxic metal that can enter the body through the skin and even by inhalation. It has the potential to pass through the brain barrier and the placental barrier and is also known to affect the sensitive organs like kidney, liver and the central nervous system.

Blue colors are likely to have copper. The organs that are targeted by this metal are eyes, skin, respiratory system, liver and the kidneys.

Water Colors

Gentian violet, a widely used color concentrate during holi can cause skin discolouration, dermatitis, develop skin allergy or irritation of mucous membrane. It is very toxic in concentrated form and can lead to keratoconjunctivitis and dark purple staining of the cornea.

Exposure to Holi colors that have an alkaline base can cause injury, the severity of which depends upon the area of contact and the degree of penetration. For example, if the color enters the eye, it can damage the ocular surface and cause temporary visual disability, discomfort and complications that pose a great danger to the vision.

Sensitive areas like the eyes should be avoided while playing with colors. If a colour comes in contact with the eye, one should immediately wash it with large amounts of water and incase irritation persists, medical aid should be sought immediately.

Organic Holi Colors

Organic holi colors made from vegetable dyes are harmless. Those who cannot lay hands on these organic colors, return to the traditional way and celebrate using tesu flowers. These flowers can be boiled and soaked overnight to get a rich yellow color. If one is not able to find these flowers in the market, use household recipes to get some nice shades and colors. One can boil the petals of marigold flowers or the peels of pomegranate (Anar)and soak them overnight to get yellow colour. For rich magenta red, use beetroot or the stem of castor (Aran) and for orange red try henna leaves (mehndi).

One can use turmeric or even red sandalwood powder to make holi pastes. These would not just impart color but would also be good for skin as they are endowed with some therapeutic values.

In India, production and sale of Holi colors is done without any quality checks. Even in cases where colors are available in a packaged form, there is little or no information for the consumer about the source of the colors, their contents, and possible toxic effects. While it is about time Union Ministry of Chemicals and Bureau of Indian Standards, Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs regulated the industrial color production and sale, consumers ought to say no to toxic chemical colors forever.

Gopal Krishna

Sudip Kumar Ghosh et al (2009). The ‘Holi’ Dermatoses: Annual Spate of Skin Diseases following spring festival in India, Indian Journal of Dermatology, Jul-Sep; 54(3): 240–242 

Gopal Krishna (2003). The Ugly Truth Behind The Colourful World,  india.indymedia.org/en/2003/03/3761.shtml

T. Velpandian et al (2007) Ocular hazards of the colors used during the festival-of-colors (Holi) in India—Malachite green toxicity, Journal of Hazardous Materials, Volume 139, Issue 2, 10 January, p. 204–208

(2007).Bilateral periorbital necrotizing fasciitis following exposure to Holi colors: A case report, http://www.ijo.in/article.asp?issn=0301-4738;year=2007;volume=55;issue=5;spage=373;epage=374;aulast=Chauhan

(2018) Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases, World Health Organisation, 15 February, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/asbestos-elimination-of-asbestos-related-diseases

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