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Is the dye in the Chicago River really green?

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Hu Guangyao/Xinhua/NEWSCOM

(Read caption) Chicago Journeymen Plumbers dye the Chicago River green to celebrate the start of St. Patrick's Day celebrations in Chicago, March 14, 2009.

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On Saturday morning, an hour or so before Chicago's annual St. Patrick's Day parade, members of Chicago's Journeymen Plumbers Union added about 40 pounds of dye to the Chicago River, temporarily transforming a stretch of the waterway into a vivid green.

Ironically, the dye itself is orange. But once it mixes with the water, it becomes a bright emerald. "This spectacular transformation," notes theĀ  parade committee's website, "ranks right up there with the parting of the sea by Moses and the Pyramids of Egypt."

(If you've ever wondered what the word "blarney" means, now you know.)

According to parade organizers, the tradition of dyeing the river dates to 1961, when Stephen Bailey, a business manager for the plumber's union, was visited by a plumber whose coveralls were stained green. The stains, it turned out, came from a special dye used to detect leaks. That year, the city had begun enforcing pollution controls, and the plumber was using the dye to locate the source of illegal waste disposal in the river.

But Mr. Bailey saw a different use for the dye. The following year, with the consent of city officials, the union dumped 100 pounds of a disodium salt called fluorescein into the river. It worked a little too well, turning the water was green for a week. Eventually they hit upon an amount that would turn the river green for just one day.

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