Also as part of its Green Chemistry Initiative, the organization has organized a “Beauty Salon Campaign” to conduct research amongst African American beauty salons to explore possible connections between products utilized primarily by Black women and possible reproductive health disparities.
According to BWW Executive Director Jan Robinson-Flint, the project, which is still in the data-gathering stage, is doing a survey of beauty supply stores, beauty salons, barber shops and wig shops within a one-mile radius of the organization’s Leimert Park-based headquarters – approximately 60 stores in all.
“We asked the owners and the stylists what were the products that they were using? And from those products what we did was create a list of the top 10 chemicals … and then looked at the impact of those chemicals – because they’re toxins – on our health and well-being. Anytime you look at any statistics for Black women, you’ll find that we are at the top,” said Robinson-Flint.
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 African American and Black community to increase information and education on Green Chemistry issues as they impact health and wellbeing, and increase the voices of African American women and girls with environmental justice issues as they impact our health and wellbeing.”
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 personal and community environments.
As a “birth worker,” Baskin said that 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 the name of beauty and looking cute … we are damaging our bodies and [our] ability to bring forth healthy babies … we often buy products because of the brand, smell, what it will do aesthetically without thinking about what it will do long term. I wanted to be able to learn and share accurate information with people who look like me,” she said.
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 Bay Area-based California 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, the owner of Los Angeles-based Luv Mi Kinks told the Salon Worker Health and Safety Congressional Briefing in Washington, D.C., last May that a truly “natural hair care industry” is needed “where hair product manufacturers can’t hide behind harmful ingredients.” Edley said, “Awareness is needed for stylists and clients around the harm that may be caused by using certain products. But what’s needed the most is 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, the Oakland-based California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, along with the Environmental Finance Center (EFC), has also produced a “Techniques to Achieve Naturally Healthy Hair” 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 hair styles 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.
Says Saffiyah Edley, “There are safer alternatives, but we need regulation in order to really push them forward.”
The chemicals found in common African-American hair products are known as estrogen and endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs. Although comprehensive research is ongoing, many of these chemicals are believed to be linked to reproductive effects and birth defects, breast cancer, heart disease, cognitive disorders, premature puberty and altered immune function, to name a few.
Chemicals found in Common African American Hair Products such as straighteners/relaxers (perms), detanglers, colorants, shampoos and conditioners
Estrogen and endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs, compiled primarily from the booklet, “Techniques to Achieve Naturally Healthy Hair”:
• Sodium Hydroxide (Lye) and Calcium Hydroxide (No Lye)
• Diazolidinyl Urea
• DMDM Hydantoin
• Propylene Glycol
• Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or Sodium Laureth Sulfate
• Colorants and Synthetic Colors labeled as D&C and/or FD&C
Thandisizwe Chimurenga is a Los Angeles-based writer and a 2011-2012 New America Media Environmental Health Justice Fellow. Thandi is also the conductor of the CyberGround Railroad, “Black Los Angeles’ News and Views Source,” a community journalist and a founder and host of Some of Us Are Brave, a Black women’s public affairs show on KPFK-Pacifica Los Angeles. She has reported for the L.A. Watts Times newspaper, KPFK Evening News and Free Speech Radio News. She covered the trial of Johannes Mehserle, who murdered Oscar Grant, for the Bay View and several other Bay Area news organizations and is the author of a forthcoming book on the trial. She can be reached at [email protected].