Asbestos-lined hairdryers, identified in a recent federal study as potential agents for lung cancer, are still in the homes of several million Americans who are being told by leading manufacturers that their products are not dangerous.
The latest findings on the health risk of asbestos in 28 hairdryer models -- released last week by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission -- reaffirmed conclusions of a private study last spring, which prompted the manufacturers to begin a voluntary recall.
Dr. William Nicholson, a veteran asbestos researcher who analyzed the hairdryer tests conducted by the government, said the asbestos emissions from the 28 models were "the highest we have measured in eight years" outside an occupational setting. He strongly recommended that the asbestos-lined models be eliminated.
However, officials at the product safety agency said they would not order a mandatory recall as a result of the new findings. And the manufacturers, just as they did after the first study was publicized, attempted to discredit the link to lung cancer and continued to tell consumers that their products were not hazardous.
"You would have to use one of them five to eight hours a day for 20 years before there would be enough [emission of asbestos particles] to hurt you," claimed a consumer relations official at General Electric Co., one of the leading hairdryer companies. "We kind of look at it like cyclamate -- you'd have to drink 800 diet colas a day for it to matter.'
Publicists at two other leading manufacturers of the asbestos-lined models, Gillette and Conair, offered similar responses. At Gillette, a spokesman said the company's own studies showed there was no significant risk in using their models.
Asbestos is a fibrous material used in hairdryers to prevent the plastic housing from melting and to keep the heat generated by the dryer from burning the person holding the unit.
Any use of asbestos -- particularly in a unit that blows microscopic particles onto the face and hair -- has been denounced as a health hazard by a number of experts. Inhaling the fibers has been linked to lung cancer one of the deadliest forms of that disease, and asbestosis, an incurable inflammation of lungs.
The new report is based on tests conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Of 30 models checked for asbestos fiber emission, 28 were found to release some particles. One of the two models that did not emit asbestos was a bonnet-type dryer that had only a small asbestos piece that was housed in an area removed from the nozzle. The other unit did not have an asbestos lining and was included for the sake of comparison.
Susan B. King, chairman of the consumer product safety commission, hailed the Nicholson analysis and the accompanying dryer test results as "the first solid data about the danger of asbestos in consumer products." She said the report will be used as a cornerstone for future regulation of asbestos in other consumer products, including oven linings, electric blankets, toasters, cigarette lighter wicks, piano and organ felts, heating pads, oven mitts, blackboards, driveway gravel, paint and phonograph records.
Of the approximately 12 million dryers sold to American consumers in recent years, about 7.5 million are believed to have asbestos liners. During the early days of the hairdryer recall, some companies acknowledged that only about 20 per cent of their models had been returned for repair or replacement.
By industry estimates, which traditionally are conservative, at least six million units are unaccounted for the safety commission conceded. Some may have been discarded, but many others are still in use, officials agreed.
Chairman King took no immediate action, however, to retrieve those still being used.
Instead, she recommended that any consumer with an asbestos-lined hairdryer stop using it. "The best thing is to take it back to an outlet to have it replaced," she said. "That gets rid of the asbestos and it gets them a new hairdryer."
However, some consumers have been offered cheaper models in exchange for the asbestos-lined models they sought to return. Responding to a letter from the company to repair or replace her GE dryer, Mary Anne Brown went to the service center at 1805 Wisconsin Ave. NW in downtown Washington.
"The man showed me the replacement -- it looked like tinsel" Brown said. Scanning the company catalog, she found the replacement retailed for $14, about half as much as she had paid for her dryer a year ago.