Last month, my circa 1980 hand-held hair dryer finally gave out. It was a Christmas present during my first year in college. The motor on the cream-colored Conair didn’t exactly fail, but I had to jiggle the electrical cord in just the right way or it wouldn’t turn on. I bought a new one, and my old one went into the garbage can. But after reading a paper in the latest issue of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH), I sort of wish I’d kept it. I knew I had an appliance relic on my hands, but now I’m curious to know whether it contained asbestos.
James Dahlgren, MD and Patrick Talbott published in IJOEH a case report of a 51 year-old former hairdresser from the US who died from peritoneal mesothelioma. This rare form of cancer is caused by asbestos exposure. She worked as a hairdresser in New York from 1976 to 1992 and reported using a hair dryer everyday on her clients.
“The patient used a blow dryer 1-2 feet away from her face, close enough to feel the expulsion of hot air from the dryer. She reported that the air was strong enough to blow her hair and bangs away from her face.”
When she chose a career as a cosmetologist, she likely didn’t know she’d be exposed to asbestos. Dahlgren and Talbott indicate that from 1976 to 1982, she only used hairdryers that contained asbestos (and were manufactured by Conair, General Electric, Gillette.) A hairdresser with mesothelioma is not an anomaly. The authors mention a mesothelioma disease registry covering residents of northern Italy. For the period 2000 to 2009, the registry identified 30 cases of mesothelioma in former hairdressers.
The matter of asbestos and blow dryers came to light in 1979 when a local Washington DC television station (WRC-Channel 4) teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to investigate which hair dryers on US store shelves contained asbestos. Their reporting embarrassed the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for failing to act more quickly to address the millions of consumer products---from electric blankets and lamp sockets, to ironing board pads and pottery clay---that contained asbestos.
A headline in the Washington Post’s March 29, 1979 edition read:
“Some Hair Dryers Give Off Asbestos: CPSC confirms carcinogen report”
The story noted:
"As many as five million hand-held electric hair dryers emit potentially dangerous levels of cancer-causing asbestos particles, government regulators confirmed yesterday. Officials of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said they have hastened efforts to determine which hair dryers now on the market are dangerous.”
The next day, the Washington Post followed-up on the story:
"The CPSC yesterday summoned the 10 leading manufacturers of home hair dryers to a Washington conference next week to discuss whether the asbestos insulation in some of them presents a health hazard.”
Among those called to the meeting were Conair, GE, Gillette, Norelco, JC Penney, Sears Roebuck & Co, Sunbeam and Schick.
A couple of months later, the CPSC approved the “voluntary corrective action proposals” offered by 11 hair dryer manufacturers. They agreed to replace or refund the dryers from consumers who contacted them.
The CPSC’s voluntary recall was substantiated by an investigation conducted by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), at CPSC’s request. Dahlgren and Talbott mention NIOSH’s findings in their case report, writing:
“The study noted that the flow rate of hand-held blow dryers was ...ample to force asbestos fibers into the environment and providing opportunity for fiber inhalation. Additionally, the degradation of hair-dryer asbestos linings with age was another source of airborne exposure.”
Sears, Penney’s and others balked at the idea that the blow dryers posed a health hazard, although they admitted that the dryers contained asbestos. A May 21, 1979 joint CPSC and manufacturers’ statement includes this from Sears:
"Sears stopped sales of hair dryers containing asbestos on April 4, 1979, although Sears does not believe the use of such dryers poses a health hazard.
In keeping with its longstanding policy of 'Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back' and because of public concern, Sears has instructed all its stores and catalog facilities to replace affected hair dryers or, if the customer prefers, to give a full refund."
As for Penney’s:
"On March 29th Penney says that it stopped sale on all of its hair dryers that contained asbestos. Penney's maintains that current evidence does not indicate that its hair dryers with asbestos present a health hazard, and the company is not asking customers to return these products.
However, if a Penney's customer is concerned because a J.C. Penney hair dryer contains asbestos, the company will follow its normal policy of customer satisfaction. Depending on the dryer, it will repair or replace the dryer at no cost to the consumer or refund the dryer's full purchase price at any of its retail stores."
Later that year, the CPSC announced that one model of hair dryer----the Rocket Blower---was tested by NIOSH with alarming results:
“the dryer was putting out asbestos fibers at a higher level than hand-held dryers previously test 'by about a factor of three.' The reading was .11 fibers per cubic meter of air."
[The current OSHA permissible exposure limit for an 8-hour shift is 0.1 fibers/m3.]
The CPSC explained the Rocket Blower is:
“in use across the country in beauty parlors catering to black customers with Afro hairstyles.”
The voluntary recall didn’t work so well. In “Home Hazards Change with Technology,” (October 30, 1980) The New York Times’ Ralph Blumenthal wrote:
"…last year asbestos fibers were discovered blowing out of hair dryers, prompting a recall--although only 3 million of the 18 million made with asbestos were ever fully accounted for.”
Reading Dahlgren and Talbott's article and looking back on the voluntary recall, I can't help but think of individuals with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers. Some of them have shared their stories, and many of them certainly wonder where and how they were exposed to asbestos. As Linda Reinstein, President of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, is quick to point out:
"If we don't know where asbestos is, we can't manage our risk."
Linda's husband Alan died in 2006 from mesothelioma.
If I'd read Dahlgren and Talbott's article sooner, my old blow dryer wouldn't have ended up in last month's garbage. Before throwing it away, I would have satisfied my curiosity by comparing its serial number to those in CPSC's old voluntary recall notices. A match to the list would have been a powerful example of how asbestos-containing products remain in our homes, workplaces and communities.
I learned about this possible exposure to asbestos through blow dryers in an Environmental Science Class in the 1980s at UCLA. I have not used a blow dryer ever since.
Here's an historical note that reinforces your recent post: Back in the 1980s, we did an analysis of respiratory cancer mortality by occupation and industry in Massachusetts and found that hairdressers had significant excess mortality from cancer of the pleura. Although there was no death certificate code for mesothelioma at the time, we assumed that's what this was. Our suspicion was that the old "beehive" hair dryers were the source of the occupational asbestos exposure that killed these women.
Great article, very informative. However, worrying to think that asbestos was used in hair driers. Thank you for sharing this article.
It makes you wonder if people were trying to kill you! I mean, come on! Asbestos KILLS people, yet greedy companies are like" aw nah, this won't kill ya!"
Celeste, So what do we do with our old asbestos hairdryers now? I have one (Conair).
An excellent question. How about we contact Conair? I wonder what they'll say. Would you send it to me if I pay you for the shipping?
Quite shocking considering the fact that a blow dryers blows air towards our hair/face where we are more likely to inhale asbestos or getting it caught in the nasal cavity etc
I was 13 years old when this all happened (living in the suburbs of Chicago), and I remember the news reports well. We had an affected hair dryer and I badgered my mom to get rid of it then. I'm sorry to hear that the recall failed so miserably.