British high street hairdressers were still using hood dryers containing asbestos less than 25 years ago, according to a Health & Safety Laboratory survey (Asbestos Emission Tests in Salon Hood-Style Hairdryers, 2006).

Analysis of the various hood dryer components revealed that there was up to 50 per cent of white ‘chrysotile’ asbestos used to support and protect the heating element.

From the 1940s until the final UK import ban on white asbestos in 1999, more than five million tons was used as insulation and fireproofing in hundreds of industrial applications and domestic products. One of the most common uses was in heating appliances, such as ovens, toasters and clothes dryers, including the protection of the heating coils in heaters, irons – and hair dryers.

Heat shields made from asbestos fibres

Almost every type and model of hairdryer manufactured up until the 1970s was insulated with heat shields made from asbestos fibres. While not posing an immediate risk when purchased new, in time the asbestos deteriorates and becomes fragile. The fibres start to crumble and the loosened fibre particles break away and are blown out of the hairdryer.

It is still shocking to learn that a quarter of hood-style hairdryers in U.K salons were found to be older models containing a fire-resistant asbestos liner wrapped around the heating coil. While women were more likely to be at a higher risk from a hair dryer produced before the first asbestos ban of the mid 1980s, some dryers were still being produced in the early 1990s by manufacturers, including top British, Dutch and German brands.

Research carried out by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (US) also indicated that many of the hair dryers they tested released “levels of asbestos fibres comparable to or greater” than dust particles found near construction sites and in school buildings.

Historical “secondary exposure”

Inevitably, it was mostly women employed in hairdressing salons who were most at-risk of exposure as they were constantly using the hairdryers, as well as their customers. Asbestos dust particles are known to remain airborne, and while they eventually do settle, can still be easily disturbed by movement or vibration.

It’s well-known that cases of female mesothelioma are mostly linked to historical “secondary exposure” between the 1950s and the 1980s, caused by handling the asbestos-contaminated overalls or work-clothes their husbands brought home each evening from work to be cleaned. Woman were also at potential risk if they worked in buildings containing asbestos insulation, such as schools, nurseries, hospitals, factories, council offices and department stores. Today, better asbestos awareness of the potential exposure risk in around 80 per cent of UK schools is an issue of urgent concern, which continues to drive the repeated calls for government action to remove the hazardous materials.

Perhaps less well-known are the reports of women developing an asbestos-related disease as a result of working in a hairdresser or from sitting under a salon hood dryer.

Tiny dust particles would accompany the hot air emitted

In one recent UK case, a former female hairdresser was diagnosed with mesothelioma after persisting problems with shoulder and arm pain following a bout of pleurisy in the previous year. The victim recalls there was a row of six hairdryers in constant daily use. The tiny dust particles would accompany the hot air emitted, which would also warm the salon throughout the day.

It was only in 2008 that a possible link was first made between the use of salon hair dryers and mesothelioma. Tragically, a female hairdresser died, aged just in her early 60s, from constant exposure to asbestos after working in a hair salon for nearly ten years. Starting her career in 1960 as a 15 year old apprentice, until 1969 the teenager was exposed to the deadly dust from the lining of hood hairdryers for more than 12 hours a day, strongly believed to be responsible for causing her mesothelioma.

Between 2000 and 2009, of 2,989 malignant mesothelioma cases recorded in an Italian Mesothelioma Registry, 30 cases were related to hairdressers.

Third of women exposed to asbestos at work

At the time of the hood dryer test report, the researchers were unclear as to the number of salon hairdryers in the UK that still contained asbestos. It was suggested that they may only have been identified when there was a mechanical or electrical failure, which then required a repair. At the time, the National Hairdressers Federation also issued a statement reassuring hairdressers and their customers that “asbestos was not used in modern hairdryers”.

Tragically, it was already too late for those women who were constantly exposed to the old style asbestos-containing dryers, which were still in use years after asbestos was banned. Since 2008 alone, around 1,200 women in the UK have died from mesothelioma, a third of whom were exposed to asbestos either at work or in their immediate environment.