LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 5 no 2  1997 ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Baby Drank Leaded Hair Colour Restorer

by Elizabeth O’Brien, Coordinator,
NSW Community Lead Advisory Service, Australia

In early April 1997 the NSW Community Lead Advisory Service (CLAS) was contacted by the mother of an eight month old baby who had been poisoned on 21st February 1997, by getting into the pantry and drinking from a plastic container of hair colour restorer containing 0.05% lead acetate.

The plastic hinged lid on the container of Restoria Hair Cream was flimsy enough for the baby to open by himself - there was no label on the container to say the product contained lead and should be kept out of reach of children, nor any instructions if poisoning should occur. The father happened to have a second container of Restoria which gave only the warning in fine print "Do not use on broken skin, or if you have any skin disorder. Wash hands after use". The cardboard packaging gave the stronger warning "NOT TO BE TAKEN", which prompted the parents to ring Poisons Information who advised that the child be taken immediately to hospital.

After dosage with charcoal, the baby’s stomach and bowel were cleared using colonic irrigation and pumping as the hospital staff feared the baby may begin fitting. Later test results showed that the baby’s serum lead level reached 20 g/dL within 8 hours, ie, twice the national acceptable blood lead level of 10 g/dL. A retest was ordered for one week after the incident but the result was not reported to CLAS. The doctor and paediatrician were unable to advise the parents as to whether any long term damage would have occurred, stating that there were no long term studies of effects from acute short term exposure to lead, although "there could be speech and neurological disorders later" (See p.4 of this LEAD Action News). The doctor kept the container which had no warnings on it and told the mother he intended to have the product banned.

The mother wondered whether the product is sold in developing countries without any warnings, and wrote to the manufacturer, Wards, in Melbourne, to advise them to remove the product from the market until it was proven to be safe, and to use child-proof lids on all cosmetics which contain poisons. She sought compensation for expenses incurred during the episode. She wrote, "Believe you me I am not into litigation in any way - all I want is to make sure this will not happen again and to prevent any more innocent children from being harmed again."

When CLAS contacted the Pharmaceutical Services Branch of the NSW Health Department, we were told that the Branch was satisfied that the particular container from which the baby drank had been replaced (by Wards) about 18 months ago with a container which did comply with the Scheduled Poisons Act (the product is a Schedule 5 poison) and that in a foray into the marketplace, the Health Department was satisfied that all three retailers stocking the product that they visited, had stock with appropriate labelling. The Health Dept contact, who is also on the federal government’s Scheduled Poisons Committee, said, "I told [the mother] she must have had old stock or stock due to be exported to a country without warning statement requirements. She would need to contact the shop she bought the product from."

When asked whether the original source of the offending container would be prosecuted by the Health Dept for a breach of the Poisons Regulations, the Scheduled Poisons Committee member said, "The Health Department would ask them to remove any improperly labelled products from sale."

There are two types of hair colour treatments - one uses lead acetate to bind to the hair and help "fix" the body’s natural hair pigment in the hair, thus restoring the person’s natural hair colour over a period of about three weeks of regular treatment. With excessive use or lack of natural pigment, the treatment turns the hair black. There is apparently no alternative to lead acetate in such a product. The other type involves simply choosing a dye colour and dying the hair. Hair dyes do not contain lead.

In Australia both Restoria and Grecian 2000 hair colour restorer treatments are sold (are there any others?) and both contain lead.

In the USA, a not-for-profit non-government organisation (NGO) in San Francisco, called the Center for Environmental Health (CEH), has sued Combe Inc, the manufacturer of Grecian Formula, in San Francisco Superior Court, "seeking an injunction prohibiting the sale of its hair dyes in California without proper warnings", according to an Internet report.

Upon contacting Michael Green at the CEH,  CLAS was informed that "the NGO’s attorney was currently jousting with the company’s attorney" in what sounded very reminiscent of the jousting which went on in "A Civil Action" (see book review in this issue of LEAD Action News). CEH says one of the articles in their arsenal is by a toxicologist in Louisiana who had ordinary people use Grecian Formula in an ordinary bathroom. The researcher found high lead levels when he tested soap cakes, basins and other surfaces in the bathroom and even such things as the telephone used after leaving the bathroom even when hands had been washed following the use of the hair treatment.

California is blessed with having a piece of legislation called, for short, "Proposition 65" (though it is actually passed as "The California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act") which demands that toxic substances such as lead, which have been associated with cancer or birth defects, be labelled to say just that. All petrol stations for instance carry the warning that "Gasoline has been associated with cancer and birth defects" (or words to that effect). Enforcement of Proposition 65 in California has resulted in some products carrying the birth defects / cancer warning throughout the US, because it's too much trouble for manufacturers to have to have different labelling for the 10% of their market which resides in California.

From their research CEH is convinced that at a minimum, pregnant women should not be using lead acetate hair colour restorer, and they question the safety of its use in any bathroom also used by children or pregnant women. The prime users of Grecian Formula in California are in the 35-55 age group. CEH is aiming to get the cancer / birth defects warning on the label, if the product is not banned outright.

In NSW, The Honourable Fay Lo Po, the Minister for Fair Trading, has the power to ban or restrict supply of a product which is dangerous to the public. The Federal Government has some requirements regarding ingredient labelling for Australian made and imported cosmetics (including hair tints), under the Trade Practices Act, the relevant minister being the Honourable Geoffrey Prosser, the federal Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs and Minister responsible for Customs.

Clearly, if the company which manufactures Restoria Hair Cream does so in compliance with the current NSW Poisons Act regulations, and is still permitted to sell it in containers easily opened by an 8 month old baby, then perhaps Andrew Refshauge, Deputy Premier and Minister for Health, could look at reviewing the labelling requirements and appropriateness of child-proof lids.

Channel 7’s The Investigators, and the Australian Consumers Association which publishes Choice magazine, are interested in the case.

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