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Toxins found in black hair care products

Thandisizwe Chimurenga | 2/7/2012, 7:36 p.m.

BWW plans to rate the chemicals in terms of how toxic they are once the results of their research are made public.

Another component of BWW’s “Green Chemistry Initiative” is an Activist and Advocate Academy organized with the goal of “developing a cadre of women and youth working with the black community to increase information and education on Green Chemistry issues … [and to] increase the voices of African American women and girls with environmental justice issues as they impact our health and well being.”

Dera Baskin, a midwife and health educator, attended the academy in 2011 with the purpose of learning how reproductive and environmental justice intersect and to find out what the common citizen can do to change the situation.

As a ‘birth worker,’ Baskin said many of the families she works with are not aware of the exposure to chemicals in their home environments and how they can reduce or remove them. “All in name of beauty ... we are damaging our bodies and [our] ability to bring forth healthy babies. We often buy products because of the brand, smell and what it will do aesthetically without thinking about what it will do long term,” she said. “I wanted to be able to learn and share accurate information with people who look like me.”

Black Women for Wellness is a member of the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance, which works to raise the profile of salon worker health and safety issues primarily in the Asian/Pacific Islander community. Along with the California-based Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, the group has provided testimony before congressional committees in Washington, D.C., regarding concerns of African American salons and their clients.

Saffiyah Edley, owner of Los Angeles-based Luv Mi Kinks said at the “Salon Worker Health and Safety Congressional Briefing” in Washington, DC, last May that a truly ‘natural hair care industry’ is needed “where hair product manufacturers can’t hide behind harmful ingredients.” Edley also said that “Manufacturers must take responsibility for products on the market today that they are making and take out harmful chemicals.”

In addition to helping to organize the congressional briefing, Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, along with the Environmental Finance Center (EFC), has also produced a “Naturally Healthy Hair Guide” to highlight sustainable alternatives for hair care.

The multicultural/multiethnic publication gives an explanation of five basic hair textures: wavy, tightly coiled, straight, very curly and grey hair, which is included because of its different growth pattern and occasional difficulty in managing.

The guide also provides tips on natural hairstyles for men, women and children such as braids and pony tails, natural curls and crimps, and the use of a flat iron for straightening. Natural care techniques mentioned in the guide include avocado or olive oil hair conditioners, using witch hazel for dandruff and sunflower oil for moisturizing and tips for “greening” hair salons.

A project of the Environmental Protection Agency, the EFC seeks to build green economies and foster sustainable communities in the U.S. by working with government and industry, communities and Native American Tribes.

The partnership between grassroots groups, business and government will be necessary for success.

Thandisizwe Chimurenga is a Los Angeles-based writer and a 2011-2012 New America Media Environmental Health Justice Fellow.