Efforts to reignite Skule spirit must involve meaningful faculty-student communication

A lack of understanding led to a disappointing orientation experience

Efforts to reignite Skule spirit must involve meaningful faculty-student communication

Purple pedestrians pridefully parading past parliament — a familiar sight in Toronto during the first week of the school year. With students dyed purple from head to toe, Skule pride fills the air with a sense of excitement that no one can ignore.

The pride and joy of ‘painting the town purple’ was missing amongst U of T’s engineering students as the first week of September rolled around this year. The reason? A warning by Health Canada associating the ingestion of the antiseptic dye used by the students, gentian violet, with an increased risk of cancer.

While the discontinuation of this tradition was for the sake of health concerns, consequential questions of ending a rite of passage loom amongst the student body. The raving energy that was once amplified by the activity is now a ‘dyeing’ tradition among orientation festivities.

The unusual ‘un-purpled’ population of engineering students during the week of festivities was a bittersweet reminder amongst F!rosh leaders and organizers of what could have been and, most importantly, what it ended up not being. While F!rosh Week organizers put time and effort into preserving the vibrant engineering traditions, this became a challenge when those making the final decisions refute these efforts.

Though a safe alternative to the genetian dye has been found, the faculty remained set in their decision to let the ‘purple pride’ tradition die down, demonstrating not only the faculty’s passivity in keeping cherished traditions alive, but more importantly, their lack of understanding and communication with their dedicated student organizers.

Students were left to dye only a small part of their bodies, leaving many disappointed.

A dyed down spirit?

The end of the tradition has given rise to bittersweet emotions amongst engineering students who experienced the act of ‘purpling’ prior to its safety warning.

“It is the central element of F!rosh Week not just at U of T, but across engineering faculties in Canada and around the world. It is frankly sad to know that the [class of 2023] will never experience the dye because of the poor communication between U of T and the F!rosh team,” said Julien Senécal, a fourth-year biomedical systems engineering student.

From dipping one’s pinky to drenching one’s entire body in purple, the resulting purple stains around campus once acted as markers of the radiant U of T engineering pride.

The purple dye holds a special meaning for Sam Looper, a Professional Experience Year engineering student and a former leader of organizing central frosh events. “Both my grandparents were engineers in the Canadian military, and their service to our country and dedication to their profession has been an inspiration to me since I first decided I would be an engineer,” said Looper.

According to legend, “the purple dye represents the duty and sacrifice of engineers in the navy, whose purple armbands would dye their skin from the temperatures in the bowels the of ships.”

“Not only does this tradition remind me of my grandparents and the role models they’ve been for me, but also [of] a more general sense of duty and responsibility which is deeply embedded in the culture of our profession,” said Looper.

This year’s student organizers found themselves with little time to adapt to the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering’s sudden decision to ban the use of dye altogether after months of brainstorming alternatives to the original dye. With the tradition dying out, the engineering faculty at U of T failed to organize an alternative to the traditional event, leaving many students, both old and new, feeling left out.

Many incoming engineering students used to look forward to someday becoming a part of this tradition. “As an incoming first-year student, it is one of the first ways you are invited to step out of your comfort zone,” said Looper, “an exercise I believe prepares you to make the most of your time in university. It builds a bond between engineers that transcends all differences and is a first symbol of pride for your profession and community.”

“Many new students had been expecting to dye and were let down. The alternative to our traditional event was not as visible or extraordinary, which dampens some of the positive effects of this tradition, including community-building and the opportunity for new students to step out of their comfort zones.”

“I hope the faculty and student leadership do a better job of collaborating to find a new solution to the current issues surrounding the tradition for the sake of future U of T engineering students,” Looper added.

The future of Skule traditions

The last-minute ban of the traditional purple dye may have taken a toll on expectations of engineering spirit during F!rosh Week, yet despite the faculty’s apparent inability to effectively collaborate with leaders and organizers to brainstorm a viable alternative to the dye, Skule spirit remains radiant.

Looper believes “that this year’s student organizers did an excellent job of maintaining the spirit of tradition despite the restrictions they were placed under.” In reflection, a major component that keeps the engineering spirit and pride alive is the feeling of connection and support between the faculty and students.

While the faculty’s decision to end the tradition was made in the interest of student health, the abrupt nature showed a lack of proper communication with the people that make the faculty what it is: the students.

In the aftermath of such a last-minute decision, accompanied by an unwillingness to figure out viable alternatives, feelings of disconnect and disappointment can easily arise. Without effective communication between administration and students, school spirit dwindles.

Now, the future of this proud tradition is up in the air. This challenge is to be solved by strengthening communication efforts between the engineering faculty and its dedicated students. Having fallen under the scrutiny of Health Canada, the next step for university engineering societies is searching for possible alternatives to gentian violet that keep the purple spirit elevated and radiant, without posing any detrimental health risks.

Mélina Lévesque is a fourth-year Anthropology and Political Science student at Victoria College.

A dyeing tradition: Engineering F!rosh practice linked to cancer

Ingestion of purple dye poses risk, warns Health Canada following years-long international investigation

A dyeing tradition: Engineering F!rosh practice linked to cancer

They’re a familiar September sight on St. George campus: newly-minted engineering students with their skin stained a bright purple.

Large vats of violet dye and crowds of eager first-year students ready to submerge themselves are common to frosh orientation events at engineering faculties across Canada. The origin and meaning of the tradition are shrouded in mystery, but the infusion of the chemical gentian violet to a dyeing solution has become iconic.

The custom has now come under scrutiny due to a Health Canada warning, which associates the ingestion of gentian violet with an increased risk of cancer.

Warning stemmed from investigation by United Nations

The warning was issued on June 12, but gentian violet’s toxicity has been studied for some time. The seeds of what would become Health Canada’s advisory were sown in 2013 in a report written by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA).

The JECFA is composed of medical experts from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Both are organs of the United Nations.

Although the report was the first JECFA evaluation of gentian violet, the publication was more akin to a literature review than an experimental study. The investigators searched the databases Medline, CABI, Agricola, and Toxnet for studies on the toxicity of gentian violet.

Health Canada also provided its own collation and review of data on the chemical. The team reviewed papers dated as far back as 1980.

Gentian violet is typically used as a component of veterinary disinfectants, and the majority of the JECFA report concerns how much gentian violet residue could be found in the remains of food-producing animals. However, an important finding was that gentian violet can bind to and alter DNA.

The researchers also noted chemical similarities of the dye to malachite green, another chemical already acknowledged as carcinogenic. Accordingly, the expert committee resolved that there could not be an acceptable daily intake of gentian violet for humans.

International representatives debate over wording of advisory

Following the report’s publication, the JEFCA’s results were forwarded to the Codex Committee on Veterinary Drugs in Food (CCRVDF). The CCRVDF is a subsidiary of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, another joint FAO-WHO organization that oversees food-related advisories worldwide. The next convening of the CCRVDF came in 2015, two years after the JECFA’s determination.

Various national delegations to the CCRVDF agreed that a Risk Management Recommendation (RMR) needed to be applied to gentian violet, but they disputed over its precise wording.

Throughout three sessions, spanning from 2015–2018, the Commission debated the inclusion of a sentence specifically condemning the use of the chemical on food-producing animals.

Ultimately, in an April 2018 report, the committee decided to exclude the precise condemnation to “allow member countries to choose appropriate risk management approaches to prevent residues of Gentian Violet in food.”

This RMR was then sent for approval to the entire Codex Alimentarius Commission, which it received in July 2018.

Where does Health Canada come in?

Upon receiving notice of the RMR, Health Canada initiated its own review process to confirm the findings. This involved the analysis of Canadian reports of illness associated with gentian violet before comparing local findings to international reports.

After nearly a year of study, researchers decided that although there were no cases of gentian violet being linked to cancer in humans, the reports of carcinogenicity in animals were enough to warrant a warning.

The department then worked with manufacturers to remove from circulation the single human non-prescription medication and nine veterinary medications available in Canada that list gentian violet as an ingredient.

Three licensed medical devices continue to use gentian violet as part of a sterile dressing. However, Health Canada has assessed that they do not pose a risk to human health due to the short exposure time of gentian violet to patients.

Risk of applying gentian violet to skin is unclear

It is important to note that the entire process of investigation into gentian violet has been focused on toxicity if ingested, which is typically not a component of engineering orientation activities. Health Canada acknowledged this focus in its safety review on the substance, explicitly stating that the result of applying gentian violet to the skin is “unknown.” 

“Generally, the amount of a chemical that can get absorbed through the skin is small, but this is chemical-dependent, and I’m not sure anyone has ever looked to see whether gentian violet gets into the systemic circulation after topical application,” wrote Dr. Denis Grant, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology, to The Varsity.

“Some chemicals can cause skin cancer if they’re topically applied. All in all, given the theoretical plausibility and limited demonstrated evidence for a cancer link, in my opinion it would be prudent to avoid bathing in the stuff.”

Where will the engineering tradition go from here?

While the risks of using gentian violet are now evident, the dyeing tradition is seen as an integral component of engineering student culture that should be maintained.

“The Toike really loves the purple dye tradition!” wrote Joanna Melnyk, Editor-in-Chief of the Toike Oike, to The Varsity. The Toike Oike is a humour publication managed by U of T’s Engineering Society for the purpose of commenting on aspects of engineering culture. 

Melnyk continued, “We feel really cool with our sword(s), wooden sticks, and red wagon, looking like a gang of people with a strange skin condition wielding potentially dangerous items!”

While the tradition is planned to continue this September, the Engineering Society is dedicated to providing a safe F!rosh to all first-year engineering students.

“Although the health concerns with gentian violet pertain to quantities and uses different from our own, we will not be using this dye for Orientation Week,” wrote Ben Mucsi, Chair of the Engineering Society’s Orientation Committee, to The Varsity. “At this point, we have studied a broad range of alternatives and we want to make sure that we are thorough and careful in our decision-making.”

“We are being very diligent in evaluation of our options to ensure that we provide the safest and most enjoyable experience during Orientation Week,” he continued. “Our goal is to ensure that all incoming students have the option to safely participate in our long-standing tradition, and my team, in collaboration with the Engineering Society leadership, have been working hard throughout the summer to try to make that happen!”