It began last summer as a simple question by a Portland hair stylist: Could the Brazilian Blowout I am using on clients’ hair be making me sick? Her question turned into a national discussion about the dangers of formaldehyde in popular hair-straightening products.
Dede Montgomery, an occupational health and safety specialist at the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology (CROET) at Oregon Health and Science University, took that question in July 2010, when a stylist was referred to CROET after experiencing a sore throat, chest pains, and a nose bleed. Montgomery agreed to help investigate.
No chemical ingredients were listed on the label, and the product’s material safety data sheet (MSDS) did not indicate that it contained hazardous ingredients, nor did it include any warnings.
Montgomery explained that salon products not sold directly to consumers aren’t currently required to have the ingredients listed on the container, but hazardous ingredients above certain concentrations must be listed on the MSDS. Because of the stylist’s symptoms and comments on stylists’ blogs speculating about the presence of formaldehyde in similar products, Montgomery requested consultation services through Oregon OSHA to analyze samples of two products.
“The first bottle Oregon OSHA tested was around 5 percent dissolved formaldehyde,” Montgomery said, “which is far above the 0.1 percent Hazard Communication criteria that would require its listing on the MSDS for employees.”
Based on what they had learned, staff at CROET put a notice on its Emerging Issues and Alerts web page. As they continued to research the issue, they discovered that Brazilian Blowout had a newer “formaldehyde-free” product.
“We thought maybe newer was better,” said Montgomery, “so we decided to find a sample of the newer formula, labeled ‘formaldehyde-free’ for testing.”
Oregon OSHA analyzed the “formaldehyde-free” sample, using four different test methods that detected formaldehyde levels at 10.6 percent, 6.3 percent, 10.6 percent, and 10.4 percent.
“These levels of formaldehyde are similar to what you might find in embalming fluid,” said Montgomery.
Both CROET and Oregon OSHA concluded that this product posed a risk to salon workers. CROET issued an updated advisory, and Oregon OSHA tested 105 samples from 54 Oregon salons. Formaldehyde content ranged from 6.8 percent to 11.8 percent and averaged more than 8 percent.
Many stylists experienced symptoms of exposure, but because the manufacturers, importers, and distributers had not included the correct warnings on product information, most salons had not been aware of the hazards posed by the treatment. The Portland salon previously mentioned had discontinued use of the product prior to contacting CROET. Many other salons stopped using it once they learned about the alerts.
The word spreads
“Because the company’s MSDS was not accurate, we notified California OSHA,” said Melanie Mesaros, public information officer for Oregon OSHA. “The company is located in California, so California OSHA would have jurisdiction.”
CROET and Oregon OSHA also alerted federal OSHA to the issue, and CROET submitted a report to the Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Public Health, which, under the 2005 California Safe Cosmetic Act, informs the public regarding hazardous and potentially hazardous ingredients in cosmetic products sold in California.
Media attention grew, and phone calls began to flood Oregon OSHA and CROET.
Once Oregon OSHA issued a Hazard Alert on Brazilian Blowout, the agency became the focus of media attention from around the country. The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Oprah, National Public Radio, and Inside Edition are just a few of the media outlets that jumped on this story.
“Since this started making news, we have had more than 23,000 visitors to our Emerging Issues and Alerts website,” said Montgomery. “We also have received dozens and dozens of emails and phone calls from stylists, many concerned about symptoms they experienced while using the product, including some who may have been sensitized to formaldehyde.”
“This has had the effect of raising awareness about this issue,” said Mesaros, “especially here in Oregon where it all started.”
In December, Brazilian Blowout asked for an injunction to force Oregon OSHA and CROET to stop reporting test results, but in March the company dropped the lawsuit. The State of California is currently suing the company for violation of five California laws, alleging that the company, among other things, failed to warn salon workers of the danger that formaldehyde posed, did not report the presence of formaldehyde in the product to the Department of Public Health, and used false and deceptive advertising by calling the product “formaldehyde free.”
Montgomery has been frustrated that so many salons were still using the product without knowing that it contained a hazardous ingredient. Although the FDA is investigating keratin hair treatments and what can be done to protect stylists and clients, the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938 appears to preclude the agency from recalling unsafe products like Brazilian Blowout. Several states, including Oregon, Connecticut, and Washington, have issued alerts about the potential risks of these treatments, as has federal OSHA. Canada’s health department has given a similar advisory and recalled many hair-smoothing products containing concentrations greater than 0.2 percent formaldehyde.
The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011, originally introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in July 2010, was reintroduced this past June. This legislation would give the FDA authority to recall products with ingredients linked to cancer, birth defects, and other adverse health effects. It would also require full ingredient disclosure on product labels and company websites and provide access for workers to information about unsafe chemicals in personal care products.
If a salon continues to use the original Brazilian Blowout formula, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that it follow the OSHA formaldehyde standard, which includes the use of personal protective equipment, employee training, and availability of eye- and skin-washing equipment. The standard also includes employee medical surveillance, for example, using health screenings to establish an initial baseline of employees’ health and then monitoring their future health as it relates to the hazardous exposures. Other recommendations include additional air tests. If air samples show concentrations above NIOSH or other limits, then the salon should provide employees with the appropriate NIOSH-approved respirator. CROET and Oregon OSHA have not investigated an even newer product, Brazilian Blowout Zero, recently introduced by the manufacturer.
“Employers need to know what is in products that are being used in their business,” said Montgomery, “and they may need to look outside the company selling the product to get third-party, science-based information.”
Formaldehyde is known and marketed under a variety of names: methanal, methylene oxide, formalin (a liquid form of formaldehyde), and methylene glycol. It is normally a colorless, strong-smelling gas that has been classified as a carcinogen. Studies have shown that extended exposure to formaldehyde can raise the risk of lung cancer, myeloid leukemia, and rare cancers of the nasal passages and upper mouth. Health care professionals, medical lab technicians, and embalmers, as well as teachers and students who handle biological specimens preserved with formalin, have been considered the groups at highest risk for formaldehyde exposure.
Short-term exposures can irritate the eyes and nose and cause coughing and wheezing. Later, it may cause severe allergic reactions of the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract. Long-term exposure to low levels of formaldehyde in the air or on the skin can cause asthma-like symptoms, dermatitis, and cancer.
Airborne exposure limits
Occupational exposure limits for airborne exposure to formaldehyde have been established by OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), as well as professional organizations and state and local governments. Some of these limits are legally enforceable, and others are recommendations. You can learn more about Oregon OSHA’s rules related to formaldehyde on its website.
Some other online resources that may be of interest are listed below:
This article is from the fall 2011 issue of Comp News. See other articles from this publication.