This St. Patrick’s Day Tradition Has Consumers Worried About Source Water Quality

As St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the country, cities like Tampa Bay and Chicago are preparing to dye local source waterbodies a festive green. And that leads many consumers to wonder if this flashy tradition is damaging our source water.

“Usually when our local waterways turn a fluorescent green, it’s time to worry about toxic chemical spills and three-eyed fish,” as Grist reported. “Dyeing the river green for St. Patrick’s Day has been a time-honored ritual in Chicago since 1962 and in Tampa since 2012, as well as in a few other centers of Irish pride around the country. To pull it off, ‘they’ (aka city managers and public works gurus) typically use orange powder dyes that turn bright green once they hit the water, then break down in a matter of hours.”

While the tradition might be alarming, it appears to be benign as far as its environmental impact. Officials in Chicago refuse to publicly disclose the components of their dye but have claimed it is environmentally friendly and made of vegetables. Tampa officials have claimed that the commercial dye it uses meets U.S. EPA standards under the Clean Water Act.

green river in chicago
green river in chicago

“Local environmental groups don’t exactly embrace this tradition, but they don’t pooh-pooh it either; they remind us that we should be worried about bigger threats to our rivers, like sewage, chemical spills, runoff from fertilizers and pesticides, trash, even dog poop,” per Grist. “Interestingly enough, the bright tints at work in these festive celebrations — called tracer dyes — are often called upon to detect and protect the health of our waterways, not muck them up.”

Still, harmless as it may be, the tradition of dyeing our source water a neon green on St. Patrick’s Day may reinforce negative perceptions about these natural resources being at our disposal for entertainment and levity. 

“Regardless of whether the green dye is harmless … it’s time to rethink how the Chicago River is being treated,” as a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times put it. “Let’s resolve to work together … to create a new St. Patrick’s Day tradition, one that honors both the Chicago River and the proud Irish heritage of many of the Chicagoans who helped build our city.”

This year, it may be time to rethink what St. Patrick’s Day really means for us and our water.

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