Death of a Hairdresser

Yesterday I learned that a dear friend died during surgery for tracheal cancer. The death of this friend was a rude and rough reminder of mortality, and engulfed me in a tsunami of regret.

As I looked at Jacques’ memorial photo, what rose to the surface was how incongruous were the word “cancer” and the mischievous smile on this man’s face.

Last night, unable to sleep, I kept thinking about his cancer, wondering “why? how?” He wasn’t a smoker. I remembered sitting in his Paris salon where I gave him English lessons, watching him mix his colors and chat with his adoring clients.

And as I lay there in bed, my environmental-health-mindedness took over and I saw the scene differently –  as the product was dabbed on the client’s hair follicles, the VOC’s from the product would waft up into the air, some of them being inhaled through his nose and mouth. All day long, 6 days a week over 40 years (minus a few weeks a year vacationing in Crete or Malta).

It sounds like a very plausible case for occupational exposure to me.

I’m not claiming I know for sure that Jacques’ constant exposure to the chemicals in hair coloring products caused his cancer, but basic logic suggests they could have, couldn’t they?

I checked the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, and found this mentioned:

Among cosmetologists, elevated PMbR’s [proportional morbidity ratios] were observed for cancer of the digestive organs, respiratory system, trachea, bronchus and lung, breast, and genital organs.

So there are statistics on higher cancer death rates for hairdressers. Should we be surprised? Conventional hair color products contain known or probable carcinogens. Shouldn’t we be concerned?

As I work through my grief and anger at Jacques’ loss, I am sure of one thing. The way we go about dealing with cancer as a community is obviously not working. 

The medical community focuses on finding cures rather than on preventing illness.  This way of thinking has transferred to popular culture as well. Every time I see a cancer benefit event or campaign the slogan is “find a cure!” What if prevention was the cure?

Medical practitioners receive little emphasis on environmental health in their training, so it’s to be expected that there is little guidance from our doctors on keeping ourselves free of environmental health risks.

And if you think the government has your back, think again. Over 62,000 chemicals are in use that were approved without testing for safety. The branch of the EPA that oversees chemical safety is grossly underfunded. In essence, the burden of proof is on the consumer to prove that a chemical is harmful rather on the manufacturer to prove that it is safe.

Which means that you have to look out for yourself. Or rather, we have to look out for each other.

At home or in the beauty salon, there are always better choices to be made.

There are safer, less toxic hair products on the market, which some salons embrace, so we can vote our conscience on these topics by giving them our business.

We can also try to help our beloved hairdressers convert to using safer products, both for their health and for our own.

Jacques’ lifelong partner told me his doctors said they lacked statistics to identify a cause for his cancer, but that Jacques thought it might have been breathing the chemical products he used in his work. I feel that Jacques was able to come to a more honest assessment of his situation than his doctors, identifying a probable cause where his doctors were unable or unwilling to.

If our doctors are unable to provide us with this kind of insight, how are we to protect ourselves? We need to listen to our intuition.

Not only listen, but also stop letting ourselves be dissuaded by outside sources of “authority.”

If you’re considering spraying pesticides in your home despite a nagging inner voice saying “it can’t be good for me or my family,” or pick up a bottle of moisturizer and see a long list of ingredients on the back that makes you cringe, or if you have always been wary of what happens when you “nuke” your food in the microwave,  maybe you should take a moment, listen to that voice, and empower yourself to make the choice that you truly feel to be the better one.

Maybe it’s time to give some consideration to that intuition telling you to protect your health.

Jacques was a healthy, happy guy. He was diagnosed in April and now, in the beginning of June, he’s gone. His death makes me sad and angry, but it also makes me reaffirm my commitment to doing what I can to increase awareness of environmental health issues.



Lack of Environmental Health Training

Proposed Safe Chemicals Act

What’s Gotten Into Us?

Image courtesy of Jacques’ partner, Alain

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