cancer fears lead to ban of popular hair dye ingredient by Canada
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Cancer fears lead to ban of popular hair dye ingredient by Canada

Lead acetate, a key ingredient in popular men’s products to disguise gray hair, has been banned in Canada because of suspicion it is carcinogenic and a reproductive toxin. Companies that manufacture the progressive hair dyes must reformulate their products by the end of the year to remove the lead acetate. Citing “possible links to carcinogenicity and reproductive toxicity”, Health Canada prohibited the ongoing use of lead acetate in progressive hair dyes.

In an article published earlier this year, the a national Canadian newspaper first revealed the potentially harmful effects of lead acetate, effects that came to light during an investigation into the personal-care products industry. The European Union previously banned lead acetate because cosmetics manufacturers there could not prove it was safe for use, and the state of California has identified lead acetate as a carcinogen.

Health Canada maintains a Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist of restricted and prohibited substances; lead acetate is the newest addition to this list. The Hotlist is reviewed and updated several times a year when new scientific data becomes available. The national newspaper’s investigation earlier in the year revealed that unlike pharmaceutical drugs, the majority of ingredients in toiletries and cosmetics have not been rigorously tested as safe for humans.

According to a Washington-based Environmental Working Group, only 11 percent of the more than 10,000 ingredients that appear in personal-care products have been assessed by the government for safety. The remaining 89 percent of unreviewed chemicals are used in more than 99 percent of the products on the market today. Studies linking common cosmetic ingredients to long-term health problems are becoming more common. A disturbing number of studies reveal links between these products and serious health problems such as cancer and infertility. Perhaps of even greater concern is the lack of information concerning the possible effects the daily layering these products on top of one another.

The newspaper investigative report highlighted several other problem ingredients, some of which have now joined Health Canada’s Hotlist: phenol (used in lip-balms), coal tar (used in dandruff and psoriasis shampoos), and several commonly-used ingredients believed to cause allergies. Several activists have praised the newspaper for its work on this issue, and for focusing Health Canada’s attention on this important issue.

A scientist with California-based non-profit health and environmental research institute Commonweal, David Baltz, urged Health Canada to go further. Baltz characterized the global regulatory structure for chemicals as “grossly inadequate”, and called for comprehensive testing of chemical ingredients before they are approved for use in cosmetics and toiletries. Determined to improve public health, Baltz wants the burden of proof shifted from the public (who must prove damage) to the manufacturer (who must prove reasonable safety).

Citizen activist groups have long had concerns about progressive and traditional hair dyes. The Environmental Working Group claims that 7 of the 60 common ingredients in the average hair dye pose cancer risks in humans, 3 are linked to breast cancer, and 21 are untested for their effects on humans. An analysis of 7,500 personal care products last year revealed that 71 hair dyes contain ingredients derived from coal tar, a known carcinogen. Of the 117 hair dyes analyzed, 62 percent contain ingredients that are probably or known carcinogens, 79 percent contained ingredients with impurities linked to breast cancer, 73 percent contained known allergens, and 96 percent contained penetration enhancers that increase exposure to those harmful ingredients.

Manufacturers counter these claims by pointing out that the ingredients have been used for many years in numerous costmetics products with very few reports of side effects. Many of the ingredients are used at concentrations much lower than those used in tests that have suggested the ingredients are carcinogenic. At high concentration many chemcials, including some naturally produced chemicals in food, are carcinogenic.

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