Trade Secrets

Back in the days of bouffants and beehives, women tolerated thick clouds of hair spray, mostly never giving a thought to whether it was safe, likely presuming that companies would not sell a dangerous product. Or perhaps they might have reasoned that the government would never allow a harmful product to be sold. What these women did not realize at the time, and may not know to this day, is that until the early 1970s many hair sprays contained vinyl chloride, a chemical with the potential to cause serious health problems. The companies that manufactured vinyl chloride did know this, but never warned the public.

Vinyl chloride in hair spray, deodorants and other aerosol products was used as a propellant, an inert ingredient that does nothing to hold hair in place or stop perspiration, but simply functions to move the active ingredients out of the can. Even if women had been aware that vinyl chloride could be toxic at high levels, they probably would not have known they were using the chemical. Manufacturers were not then required to list any hairspray ingredients on labels.

Vinyl chloride had been found to cause liver cancer in laboratory animals, and cancers were beginning to turn up among chemical plant workers. By 1969, vinyl chloride makers were aware that hairdressers might be at even greater risk than men on the factory floor. A 1969 B.F. Goodrich memo reports calculations that in a typical small hairdresser’s room, the concentration of vinyl chloride could exceed safe levels.

The companies did not, however, immediately move to take the chemical out of hairspray. Their major fear seemed to be the possibility of lawsuits. In a January 1973 meeting, industry lawyers warned of the enormous potential legal liability:

"If vinyl chloride proves hazardous to health, a producing company's liability to its employees is limited by various Workmen’s Compensation laws. A company selling vinyl chloride as an aerosol propellant, however, has essentially unlimited liability to the entire U.S. population."

If the industry had revealed the dangers of vinyl chloride in aerosol sprays, historians who have studied the documents conclude, the disclosure might have prompted too many unwanted questions. So rather than warn beauty parlor operators, or urge that the hair spray be recalled, the manufacturers decided to quietly get out of the aerosol business. Notes of a March 1973 meeting report that "a decision to suspend sale should be executed by personal visits to substantial fillers (or marketers) using this propellant." In other words, the vinyl chloride manufacturers would send representatives to the companies that put hair spray in cans, to tell them personally to stop using the propellant. No public warning was issued. And it is impossible to know how many women may have been sick or died – without knowing why.

Unfortunately, one of the substitutes for vinyl chloride was nearly as bad. The paint stripper methylene chloride became the propellant of choice in hair spray and a variety of other products in the 1970s. In 1989, the FDA banned methylene chloride in hair spray because of cancer concerns. Whether the propellants or other ingredients in products we use today are safe, or not, is simply unknown. In some cases consumers cannot even find out what the ingredients are because they are considered trade secrets.

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