Please see the above trailer for Chris Rock’s movie, “Good Hair,”

in which he has to answer his little daughters question,

“Daddy, why is my hair ‘bad’?”

Many Black people in Brazil (where I live) and in the United States are using formaldehyde to straighten their hair. They call it a "progressive permanent", although it doesn't last more than a week or two under the best conditions, if only because new hair grows that has not been "processed".  Then women tie their hair back as tightly as possible so that the curly new growth will be as invisible as possible.  Otherwise their half chemically permanent and half DNA permanent hair looks like a broom that has been randomly hacked at with a pair of sharp scissors.

But, if this many women use formaldehyde to straighten their hair, it must be harmless to them and their children, right? Not quite. The Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry says,

Formaldehyde is a nearly colorless gas with a pungent, irritating odor even at very low concentrations (below 1 ppm). Its vapors are flammable and explosive. Because the pure gas tends to polymerize, it is commonly used and stored in solution. Formalin, the aqueous solution of formaldehyde (30% to 50% formaldehyde), typically contains up to 15% methanol as a stabilizer.

So people are straightening their hair with a "flammable and explosive liquid", including "methanol"? Methanol is used as an alternative to gasoline in cars. It could still be safe to put formaldehyde and methanol in your and your children's hair, right? Not quite. According to the US Centers for Disease Control,

  • Inhalation of formaldehyde can cause airway irritation, bronchospasm, and pulmonary edema.
  • Absorption of large amounts of formaldehyde via any route can cause severe systemic toxicity, leading to metabolic acidosis, tissue and organ damage, and coma.
  • There is no antidote for formaldehyde. Treatment consists of supportive measures including decontamination (flushing of skin and eyes with water, gastric lavage, and administration of activated charcoal), administration of supplemental oxygen, intravenous sodium bicarbonate and/or isotonic fluid, and hemodialysis.
  • Meanwhile Black children have dramatically higher incidence of asthma than white children living in the same cities.  White people do not straighten their hair as much or as often as Blacks.

    According to the University of Illinois at Chicago,

    Asthma prevalence has been found to be higher in urban areas. A survey of inner-city children in New York City showed that 14.3% reported ever having asthma, and 8.6% reported current asthma, a rate twice that of the general U.S. population (4.3%). A study of asthma mortality in Chicago found an overall asthma mortality rate of 16.42 deaths per million from 1980 to 1988 for persons aged 5 to 34 years; this is approximately three times the rate for the general U.S. population.  Rates were highest among poor black persons. Targonski et al.8 studied asthma mortality among persons aged 5 to 34 years in Chicago from 1968 to 1991, and found a 337% increase in mortality for African Americans, while there was no significant increase among Whites. A study of asthma hospitalization among 5- to 14-year old Medicaid patients in Michigan also found much larger increases among urban black children, from 3.2 per 1000 in 1980 to 7.1 per 1000 in 1984.

    One Swedish study linked formaldehyde levels in the home to the presence of asthma:

    Although there has been little research on indoor pollutant concentrations and asthma, there is some evidence of an association. Researchers in Sweden22 measured levels of formaldehyde and VOCs, along with other indoor factors, in homes of 47 asthmatics and 41 nonasthmatic subjects. Mean formaldehyde concentrations were 29 and 17 ug/m3 in homes with and without subjects reporting nocturnal breathlessness. The mean levels of total VOCs in the living room were 780 ug/m3 and 300 ug/m3 in homes of subjects with and without reported nocturnal breathlessness.

    Is it possible that the formaldehyde in Black women's and children's and even men's hair, at the beauty salon and at home (and in the homes of poor Black people who cannot afford salons) is causing their children to have life threatening asthma attacks?
    One way to test the hypothesis would be for Blacks with formaldehyde-straightened hair to go without chemical straighteners for a year, in themselves, their home and their children, to see if their children's asthma attacks subside.  However, this is not a test, since at least half of the thirty children in your child's classroom also have trace but still poisonous levels of formaldehyde in their hair.  A whole community might have to try to be hair-straightening free to see if children's asthma decreases.

    I suspect most Black women will prefer to keep straightening their hair with formaldehyde, buying asthma medication, and taking their kids to the emergency room with severe and life-threatening asthma attacks.  After all, the vast majority of Black women straighten their hair and have no intention of desisting, no matter what the consequences for their children's health.

    So how should Black women respond to the mere suspicion that the formaldehyde in their hair, and the formaldehyde to which children are exposed during hair straightening may be causing children's asthma attacks? The

    Formaldehyde is a highly toxic systemic poison that is absorbed well by inhalation. The vapor is a severe respiratory tract and skin irritant and may cause dizziness or suffocation. Contact with formaldehyde solution may cause severe burns to the eyes and skin.

    Respiratory Protection: Positive-pressure, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) is recommended in response situations that involve exposure to potentially unsafe levels of formaldehyde vapor.

    If you have a children who suffers from asthma attacks, should you expose them to formaldehyde during the process of straightening their hair, or while waiting for your hair to be straightened,and then being subject to your hair all day and every time you hug them?

    Should you keep formaldehyde-based straightening preparations in the home, where they contaminate the air that your asthmatic child breathes? If you want to kill your child, this would be a good way to do it without being prosecuted. Just expose your child to hair straightening formaldehyde and ignore her/him when s/he is unable to breathe.

    If your child has asthma attacks as well as exposure to straightened hair and hair straightening, consider this medical wisdom from the CDC:

    In cases of respiratory compromise, secure airway and respiration via endotracheal intubation. If not possible, perform cricothyroidotomy if equipped and trained to do so.

    Treat patients who have bronchospasm with aerosolized bronchodilators. The use of bronchial sensitizing agents in situations of multiple chemical exposures may pose additional risks. Consider the health of the myocardium before choosing which type of bronchodilator should be administered. Cardiac sensitizing agents may be appropriate; however, the use of cardiac sensitizing agents after exposure to certain chemicals may pose enhanced risk of cardiac arrhythmias (especially in the elderly).

    Surely, most parents would not allow their children to be exposed to toxic chemicals unless it was necessary to assure that women and children have straight hair instead of "bad" hair.  The National Institutes of Health says:

    Indoors, products that contain volatile organic compounds release emissions when you use them, and to a smaller degree, when they are stored. You can be exposed to volatile organic compounds at home if you use cleaning, painting, or hobby supplies that contain them.

    ( . . . )

    Long-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Short-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, fatigue, loss of coordination, allergic skin reactions, nausea, and memory impairment. National (Emphasis added.)

    So, there it is. A direct relationship between hair straightening chemicals and medical illnesses that affect Black children (whose hair is often straightened and who are surrounded by people with formaldehyde in their hair).

    When children go to school, they are surrounded by other children with formaldehyde and other toxins in their hair. When they come home from school, their parents' friends and relatives are toxic waste dumps from base of their hair to the tops of their heads. And then they spend Saturdays in the beauty salon with mommy, where known respiratory poisons are present in large quantities (unless they can't afford the salons and do several womens hair at home at once).

    Should we wait for more evidence that formaldehyde and other hair straightening chemicals are poisoning our children, leaving them breathless and causing trips to the emergency room, or should we take the poisons out of their environment and see if they stop having life-threatening asthma attacks?




    Leave a reply