Studying hair dye and cancerIf you are one of the...

Healthwatch

May 26, 1992

Studying hair dye and cancer

If you are one of the estimated 30 million American women who regularly dye their hair, you will be pleased to hear about a large new study designed to show whether hair dye causes breast cancer. After screening more than a thousand women, researchers concluded that using hair dye, no matter what kind or how frequently, does not significantly raise your chances of getting breast cancer. There was one possible exception to the report compiled at New York University Medical Center's Laboratory of Epidemiology: People who had worked for five years or more as beauticians showed a slightly elevated risk of getting breast cancer. In a review of 98 hairdressers, other researchers found that 40 percent had traces of solvents and other toxic chemicals in their urine. But researchers refused to say whether this means that hairdressers face an increased risk of any kind of cancer.

Keep in mind that the first study looked only at breast cancer. There is little information about connections between hair-dye use and other kinds of cancer. Even if they don't lead to cancer, many hair dyes can cause serious allergic reactions. Minimize exposure by wearing gloves when you dye your hair and washing off any dye that ends up on your skin. Look for products free of p-phenylenediamine, a chemical that can cause allergic reactions; most semi-permanent colors don't contain it. Natural colorings, such as henna, are non-carcinogenic and non-allergenic. You can also choose to have your hair highlighted or frosted rather than dyed, and so use less of the stuff. Of course there's always another option. Gray gracefully. It can be done.

Prenatal screening

Prenatal testing allows us to know more and more about a fetus long before birth, and in the process it raises some pretty difficult questions. For instance, if you were pregnant and knew your baby had a genetic defect that would leave it bedridden for life, would you abort it? Dilemmas of this nature lead to fears that parents or other decision makers might use the increasingly sophisticated prenatal testing technologies to eliminate "imperfect" babies. The surprising results of a recent national survey from the Boston University School of Medicine may relieve some of these concerns. The researchers asked 397 parents of children affected by cystic fibrosis, a life-curtailing illness, whether they would favor aborting a second fetus with the disorder. Only 20 percent of the parents said they would favor abortion in this case. Fewer than 20 percent said they would opt for aborting a fetus who would develop a severe, incurable disorder, such as Huntington's disease, at mid-life. And virtually none of the parents favored abortion for a fetus with a treatable physical problem or for the purposes of sex selection. Thirty percent to 40 percent did say they would abort a fetus with a defect that would leave him or her bedridden for life, and most of the parents felt that others should be able to abort a fetus with cystic fibrosis if they so chose.

Long earlobes

Just in case you've decided that you're happy with your looks, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery has found something more for you to worry about: your earlobes. According to a professor of plastic surgery at Northwestern University Medical School, long earlobes can ruin your "facial balance" and make you look older than you are. Apparently, when earlobes droop to more than quarter of the total length of the ear, they become likely candidates for the operation, which plastic surgeons can perform in a jiffy right in their offices. For some reason, the professor finds it surprising that so few people now ask about earlobe reduction. Most people focus directly on the face, he says, and have to have their earlobe imbalance pointed out to them. The doctor admits that long earlobes are considered a sign of wisdom and maturity in Asian societies. Not so here, though, where maturity isn't revered and this feature is merely a sign of age, or so some surgeons say.

Clean those endoscopes

Doctors are constantly being reminded to wash their hands before surgery. Now they are being told to wash their endoscopes, which are used on 11 million Americans annually. Endoscopes are long tubes inserted into the body to allow doctors to view internal organs and to perform surgery. A three-state study found that 24 percent of the reusable, flexible gastrointestinal endoscopes were contaminated by bacteria even after they were supposedly disinfected, said Dr. Ronald G. Kaczmarek of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "The importance of attaining high-level disinfection of endoscopes is underscored by case reports of transmission of infectious agents via endoscopes," Dr. Kaczmarek reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

'Artificial ear' shows promise

Cochlear implants, devices that electronically transmit sounds the brain, are helping deaf children learn to speak. A three-year study at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that children equipped with the "artificial ear" were significantly better at understanding speech and slightly better at speaking than were children using conventional hearing aids or tactile aids, which convert sound into vibrations on the skin, said Dr. Ann Geers. Only about 10 percent of the profoundly deaf children in this country learn to talk, because few have access to the intensive training and highly skilled teachers who are needed to help them. If the early findings hold up, the implants may help many more deaf children learn to speak, Dr. Geers.

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