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Cancer In A Can: What The Chemical Industry Kept Secret About Vinyl Chloride in Hair Spray

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"[B]eauty operators applying hair spray on a daily, routine basis might actually be a better population to examine [for health effects of vinyl chloride] than chemical plant operators."
- Union Carbide memo, 1972 (view entire document)

"A company selling vinyl chloride as an aerosol propellant . . . has essentially unlimited liability to the entire U.S. population."
- Union Carbide memo, 1973 (view entire document)

Working in a beauty parlor is not normally considered a dangerous occupation. When beauticians and barbers think of environmentally hazardous jobs, coal miners and refinery workers probably top the list. What most beauty salon workers (and their patrons) don't know is that aerosol hair sprays are chemical cocktails of solvents, glues, polymers and propellants, many of them toxic. Until it was banned in 1974, the chemical industry's aerosol propellant of choice was vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a potent carcinogenic gas that caused cancer in an untold number of factory workers.

Starting in 1958, the vinyl chloride industry began marketing VCM as a safer alternative to CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons i.e. freon, now banned as ozone depleters). (view entire document) For almost two decades, cosmetics companies were sold unknown quantities of vinyl chloride monomer for use as an aerosol hair spray propellant.

Questions about the human health effects of VCM in hair spray were raised as early as 1964, and chemical companies knew definitively by 1971 that VCM exposure causes tumors. But they didn't make that fact public until early 1974, when their belated revelation almost immediately triggered federal bans on VCM in cosmetics, drugs and pesticides.

According to internal chemical industry documents, when VCM makers were finally forced to acknowledge to themselves that vinyl chloride was unsafe, they said nothing publicly to "can fillers" or beauticians, but simply stopped promoting it as a propellant and raised the price to discourage its use. The documents show clearly that chemical companies did so not out of concern for public health, but because the "unlimited potential for product liability claims" outweighed "the limited commercial value of the aerosol propellant market." (view entire document)

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last updated: march.27.2009

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