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Formaldehyde risks in focus

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Although beauty salons and mortuaries have drawn the most citations and fines for violating the federal exposure standard for formaldehyde among smaller companies, employer awareness of the hazards of this carcinogenic chemical and the details of complying with the standard vary widely in these two predominantly middle-market industries.

Because funeral directors and embalmers have a long history of working with formaldehyde, which chemical experts say is indispensable for preparing the human body for viewing, the National Funeral Directors Assn. has developed a best practice protocol for working with formaldehyde.

By contrast, beauty salon owners and stylists generally lack a scientific background and don't have a keen awareness of the danger of working with products that contain formaldehyde, experts say. This is complicated by the fact that manufacturers of several popular hair-straightening products containing formaldehyde have mislabeled the products and not disclosed their formaldehyde content, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Another problem is that, for the lay person, there are many unrecognizable names for formaldehyde, including methylene glycol, formalin and oxomethane, according to OSHA.

From October 2010 through September 2011 among companies with up to 99 employees, beauty salons racked up 62 citations for violating OSHA's formaldehyde standard; funeral homes and crematories drew 16 citations.

An OSHA hazard alert said the agency is investigating “complaints from stylists and hair salon owners about exposure to formaldehyde while using hair-smoothing products such as Brazilian Blowout, Brasil Cacau Cadiveau, Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy and Marcia Teixeira....Some of these products were labeled formaldehyde-free.”

“OSHA has conducted air sampling at multiple salons and found formaldehyde in the air when stylists were using hair smoothing products,” according to the hazard alert.

In a December 2010 advisory, Health Canada said it found up to 7% formaldehyde content in some hair-straightening products.

In September 2011, OSHA said it cited two manufacturers and distributors of hair-straightening products, including Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy and Marcia Teixeira, “for failing to ensure that material safety data sheets reflected the content of formaldehyde in the product or the hazards associated with formaldehyde exposure, as well as for failing to develop a written hazard communication program for their own employees.”

The Professional Beauty Assn., a trade group representing beauty salons, “strives to inform and educate the professional beauty industry on a variety of topics and issues,” Myra Irizarry, government affairs director in Scottsdale, Ariz., said in an email.

The PBA posted “What You Don't Know Can Hurt You: A Message from OSHA” on its website, stating that OSHA “has found that some hair-smoothing products may contain formaldehyde, may release formaldehyde at levels above OSHA's permissible exposure limits during use and may be mislabeled, all of which can pose health risks to salon workers.”

The PBA website also contains detailed information about OSHA and other health agency findings of formaldehyde in keratin-based hair products. It urged salon workers to follow OSHA's formaldehyde standard, to stay informed and take appropriate precautions as the “controversy” continues to be studied.

Salon owners across the country surveyed by the Washington-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group last spring were either unaware of the formaldehyde content in Keratin Complex Smoothing Therapy and similar products, minimized the danger of exposure or considered the issue “controversial.”

The distributor of Brazilian Blowout posted a disclaimer on its website stating that “while the media continues to report that Brazilian Blowout contains 8% to 10% formaldehyde, it is important to understand that this relates to the measure of potential formaldehyde released at a level that never occurs in a real-world application.

“As federal OSHA is aware, the only accurate method of testing free formaldehyde exposure is via controlled air monitoring. Every controlled air monitoring test conducted by OSHA and alternate reputable institutions has produced results conveying that the Brazilian Blowout Smoothing Treatment falls well beneath even the most stringent of OSHA safety standards,” according to the distributor, Brazilian Blowout, North Hollywood, Calif.

“This information is now being communicated to the FDA, demonstrating that the Brazilian Blowout complies with all air monitoring guidelines.

“You can continue to confidently offer the Brazilian Blowout to your customers with the knowledge that the Brazilian Blowout falls well below the safety standards set by OSHA,” the distributor said.

Jeremy Lurie, marketing specialist at M&M International in Delray Beach, Fla., which distributes Marcia Teixeira keratin treatments, said the treatments do not contain formaldehyde. “I've never been one to shy away from truth in advertising,” he said, noting that the company's website says that their original treatments contain methylene glycol, which produces a trace amount of formaldehyde gas when heated, and are “substantially below OSHA standards for safe exposure.”

“What caused the controversy is misrepresentation by other companies that their products are formaldehyde-free,” Mr. Lurie said. “Our newest products, Soft and Soft Chocolate, do not contain any ingredients that produce formaldehyde.”

On the Keratin Complex website, Larry Solomon, president, wrote: “We disagree with OSHA's inflammatory and inaccurate report and we are asking for a full retraction. Keratin Complex not only complies with all OSHA standards, but we meet or exceed their safety standards and requirements.” 

“Some salons have taken appropriate precautions by discontinuing the use of these products. However, as of the spring when we published our report, over 60% of top salons nationwide were still using keratin-straightening products,” said a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, which has urged the FDA to take these products off the market.

A small salon owner, who wished to remain unidentified, said that one distributor cited by OSHA “swore up and down there was no formaldehyde” in its keratin products. He continued: “We stopped using most of (them). We found that most of those companies haven't been honest with us. A couple of clients want them and we have them sign a release, saying we're not sure what's in the product.”

Hair Cuttery, a national chain, advertises on its website that it provides a “Keratin Smoothing System.” In response to a question about what precautions are taken to protect stylists against formaldehyde exposure when using keratin products, a spokeswoman for Hair Cuttery parent Ratner Cos. in Vienna, Va., said in an email that “We do not use straightening products that contain formaldehyde in our salons.”

When questioned about this discrepancy and whether the company had discontinued using Keratin Smoothing System, she said, “The system we use is Bionaza Premiere Brazilian Keratin Treatment and it is formaldehyde-free.”

Salons across the country continue to advertise keratin hair- smoothing services on their websites, including Joseph Michael's Salon & Spa in Chicago.

“The main precaution we take is a large carbon filter system that's portable and goes with the stylist,” said Allison Vannoy, general manager. “We let the stylist decide whether to do the services or not. All are welcome to wear a mask, but most don't. We haven't seen any adverse results and if we do, we'll take a second look,” she said. “We look at the (OSHA) regulations on a pretty regular basis,” she said.

“If you follow best practices management, you can use (formaldehyde) safely,” said John Reed Sr., owner of Dodd & Reed Funeral Home in Webster Springs, West Va., and past president of the NFDA. “A good exhaust system” is a main precaution as well as “absolutely monitoring the air” and wearing gloves and masks when working with products containing formaldehyde, he said.

“The best precaution is to follow OSHA guidelines, and really the best way is proper ventilation. Keep that air changing in the room,” said Vernie Fountain, a licensed funeral director and owner of Fountain National Academy in Springfield, Mo., which teaches “difficult embalming cases and post-mortem reconstructive surgery.”

“I know from limited experience with salons that they don't have a safety and health or hazard communication program that they review with employees,” said Jack Luckhardt, president of safety and health consultant The Luckhardt Group in Oviedo, Fla. “They need to check the labels of all the materials they have and make sure they have a material safety data sheet. They need to get the information and make it available to employees and watch out for warning signs,” such as itching or burning in the eyes, said Mr. Luckhardt, a former board member of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

“But one of the problems they're up against is there are manufacturers of hair care products that were labeled as formaldehyde-free, when in fact the products when heated release formaldehyde,” he said.

“I think a lot of the salons are flying blind,” Mr. Luckhardt said.