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Groups Ask FDA To Ban Lead Compound From Hair Dye Products

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While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently recommended further limiting the amount of lead found in common cosmetics, that guidance didn’t extend to hair dyes that contain lead acetate. Now, a coalition of consumer advocates says the agency should reconsider its approval of the ingredient in hair dyes.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Environmental Working Group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, our colleagues at Consumers Union, and others signed a petition [PDF] claiming that lead acetate — the active ingredient in products like Grecian Formula that slowly darkens grey hair when used repeatedly — is a neurotoxin and carcinogen, and thus, shouldn’t be in hair dyes.

“We now know that lead is more dangerous, especially to children, and skin absorption is a more significant route than FDA thought in 1980,” Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at EDF, said in a joint statement from the groups. “We also have evidence that when the dye is applied, lead spreads widely in the immediate environment. This puts more people, including children, at risk of unknowingly ingesting it.”

Tina Sigurdson, EWG’s assistant general counsel, points out that lead acetate can expose people to lead, which has been linked to serious health problems like developmental, reproductive and organ system toxicity, as well as cancer. Other countries have banned the substance already, she adds.

“It’s unconscionable that this potent neurotoxin is still used in a handful of men’s hair dye formulas. Lead acetate already has been banned in Canada and the European Union. It’s time for the U.S. to take action.”

The FDA approved lead acetate as a repeated use hair dye in 1980, noting on its website that “No significant increase in blood levels of lead was seen in the trial subjects and the lead was not shown to be absorbed into the body through such use.”

Products are required to bear the below label:

“Caution: Contains lead acetate. For external use only. Keep this product out of children’s reach. Do not use on cut or abraded scalp. If skin irritation develops, discontinue use. Do not use to color mustaches, eyelashes, eyebrows, or hair on parts of the body other than the scalp. Do not get in eyes. Follow instructions carefully and wash hands thoroughly after use.”

The groups call the warning label “vague,” pointing out that dyes are allowed to have lead levels of up to 6,000 ppm (parts per million). This, despite the fact that in 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the sale of household paint containing more than 600 ppm of lead.

The petitioners say there have been major advances in science since the FDA’s 1980 decision, citing a study showing lead contamination from the hair dyes—especially on surfaces touched after using the hair dye like blow-dryers, combs and faucets.

The study found that those surfaces had up to 2,804 micrograms of lead per square foot. The Environmental Protection Agency said in 2001 that more than 40 mmicrograms of lead per square foot on the floor posed a hazard to children, note the groups.

“It’s been almost 40 years since the country banned lead from the paint we use on our walls, but the FDA still allows this powerful poison in the cosmetics that touch people’s heads,” said Erik D. Olson, Director of the Health program at NRDF. “There should be zero tolerance for use of lead in any product in this day and age.”

The agency will have to make final decision within 180 days. If the petition is approved, the ban would be effective immediately upon publication in the Federal Register.

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