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Cancer In A Can: Concern in the cosmetics industry

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Aerosol Age, a trade magazine, reported as early as April 1964 that vinyl chloride levels in the air of beauty parlors where hair spray was used could exceed levels later found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. (view entire document) By 1969, according to a memo from an executive at B.F. Goodrich, one of the makers of VCM: "People in the cosmetics trade have [become] concerned about the possible toxicity of these propellants." (view entire document)

With good reason. The B.F. Goodrich memo presents calculations showing the concentration of vinyl chloride in a "typical small hair dressers' room." They estimate that if a beauty operator, using hair spray propelled by VCM, styled 20 customers in an eight-hour day, the average level of VCM in the air would be 250 parts per million (ppm) and could spike as high as 1,400 ppm. (view entire document)

At the time, the "safe" threshold for industrial exposures was considered to be 500 ppm, but by the early 1970s, top medical officials and executives for VCM manufacturers believed the chemical was carcinogenic at far lower levels. In 1974, workplace standards for VCM were dropped to 1 part per million. The B.F. Goodrich memo, after reviewing this evidence, concludes: "Beauty operators may be exposed to concentrations of [VCM] equal to or greater than the level" for chemical plant employees. (view entire document)

A Union Carbide memo dated November 23, 1971, clearly acknowledges that a study had found that VCM exposure causes tumors. (view entire document) A year later, the company acknowledged internally that beauty operators were at greater cancer risk than chemical workers. (view entire document) And yet over a year later MCA, the predecessor of the Chemical Manufacturers Association was still advising VCM manufacturers to publicly make "no reference . . . to the question of carcinogens." (view entire document)

Industry documents provide a detailed, though still incomplete, record of how the chemical companies deliberately withheld critical public health data, secretly schemed to limit their liability to lawsuits and finally tried to make their problem go away quietly.

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last updated: march.27.2009

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