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Hairdressers Have Slightly Smaller Babies

Birth defects also more common, Swedish study finds

FRIDAY, Aug. 2, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Hairdressers are more likely to give birth to slightly smaller babies or to babies with birth defects.

That's the conclusion of a new Swedish study, but the increased risks were found to be moderate. And an American genetics expert says there's no cause for alarm for hairdressers or their clients.

Researchers from the University Hospital in Lund, Sweden, compared the responses of 2,410 hairdressers who had given birth with the responses of 3,462 non-hairdressers who had given birth during the same 21-year period, 1973 to 1994. The hairdressers supplied details about their working hours and their exposure to shampoos, permanent waves, sprays and other chemicals commonly used in salons.

Hairdressers were more likely to give birth to babies that were small for their gestational age -- 4.5 percent of the hairdressers had low birth-weight babies, compared to 4.1 percent of the women who did not work as hairdressers. Low birth-weight babies, defined as weighing less than 5.5 pounds, are more prone to health problems.

The hairdressers' babies weighed 7.6 pounds, on average, while the non-hairdressers' babies averaged 7.7 pounds.

Hairdressers who reported performing frequent permanent waving and spraying tended to have the lower birth-weight infants, the researchers found. Those who worked more than 30 hours a week during pregnancy also were more likely to have small babies.

Hairdressers also had more babies born with birth defects -- 2.8 percent of hairdressers' babies had birth defects, compared with 2.1 percent of babies born to non-hairdressers.

"It is no problem for the customers, just for the workers," says Dr. Kjell Toren, an associate professor at the Institute of Internal Medicine at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, one of the study authors.

The birth defects among the hairdressers' children included spina bifida, cleft palate and lip, heart defects, bladder problems, limb abnormalities and Down's syndrome.

But a Los Angeles genetics expert says that there's no cause for alarm, and that the chemicals might not be entirely to blame for the findings.

"Low birth-weight could be associated with standing on the feet all day," says Dr. Karen Filkins, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UCLA School of Medicine. The reduced uterine blood flow, a result of excess standing, could cause the baby not to grow as much, she says.

Filkins also points out that the differences between hairdressers and non-hairdressers, both in terms of defects and birth weights, was not that great. The moderate increases in both birth defects and low birth weight could have happened "by chance," she says.

The researchers' study appears in the current issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Even so, the Swedish researchers recommend the regular use of protective gloves by hairdressers, especially during pregnancy.

"In general, the exposure must be minimized," Toren says. He recommends "working with protective gloves and local ventilation in mixing rooms."

Conditions are improving in Sweden, he says. "In Sweden, this research has initiated improved ventilation and improved handling of chemicals in this business."

For pregnant women, Filkins says, there's less concern than for hairdressers because they aren't exposed to the chemicals on a daily basis.

Her advice for pregnant women who might be worried about the effects of hair chemicals on their unborn infants?

"Wait until after the first trimester [to get hair colored] to minimize the risk further," she says.

What To Do

For information on the effect drugs, medications and chemicals may have on a fetus, visit the Organization of Teratology Information Services. For information on birth defects, see the March of Dimes.

SOURCES: Kjell Toren, Ph.D., M.D., associate professor, Institute of Internal Medicine, Section of Occupational Medicine, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden; Karen Filkins, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, UCLA School of Medicine, and clinical geneticist, Los Angeles; August 2002 Occupational and Environmental Medicine
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