Advice for a lawyer

While I was researching my post on the risks of hair dyes I came across one of those no-win no fee lawyer’s websites. His speciality is personal injury in general and claims arising from hair dyes in particular.  He seems to be an earnest fellow because he devotes some of his website to campaigning against p-Phenylenediamine (PPD).  He wants it banned from hair dyes and replaced with safer alternatives.

Lawyers are getting a lot of positive coverage in the press at the moment as they seem to have been about the only people who have stood up to the Murdoch press.  I am still getting used to the idea of the lawyer as a defender of the weak against the powerful, but it is always good to see people acting on principle.  Fighting against dangerous chemicals to make the world a safer place certainly sounds like a noble cause and anyone doing so deserves respect.

But there are a few things that any crusading lawyer who wants to get PPD banned might want to bear in mind.

First off, it is not likely to be a very profitable business representing victims of PPD incidents.  For a start there won’t be very many of them.  The CTPA quotes a figure of below 1.5% for the number of users of all hair dyes likely to experience any kind of reaction to them.  Let’s make the generous assumption that a fifth of the adult population of the UK might use a hair dye every year.  That would give very roughly 100,000 cases.  That sounds promising, until you remember that the vast majority of people will suffer only a very mild reaction and will simply shrug it off.  Lets say 1% are serious enough to go to a doctor.  That has already got the number of cases down to 1,000.  Once a medical intervention has treated the short term symptoms and a patch test has identified the cause, the majority of people will be satisfied to simply avoid that material in future.  Relatively few will want to proceed to try and get compensation for what has happened to them.  Let’s guess that it will be four or five a year.

Well that doesn’t sound like a huge business opportunity, but let’s assume that there are at least some cases to be pursued.  So is a manufacturer legally liable if someone experiences an allergic reaction to their product?  I don’t know the answer to that one.  We have courts precisely to determine things like that, and it doesn’t seem to have come up in one yet.  I am not involved with hair dyes but the companies that sell them are obviously under the impression that so long as they clearly warn end users of the risks – which they do very diligently – they are in the clear.  They can certainly afford the legal expenses to defend themselves in such an event, so I will leave that to them.  But to take on such a case as on a no win no fee basis is definitely courageous.

But what about campaigning against PPD?  This can only be motivated by public spirit since our legal friend is aiming to remove from the market one of the causes of the cases he is advertising to represent.  This has to be applauded in principle.  We need more people prepared to put the common good ahead of their own self interest. The trouble is, I think he hasn’t quite understood how these things work.

PPD does show up in the literature as a sensitiser, and there are a lot more references to it than to other hair dye ingredients.  But this doesn’t mean it is the most sensitising ingredient.  It just means it is more widely used.  I dare say there are more car accidents involving Ford Focuses than e-type Jaguars.  This simply reflects that there are a lot more of them around, not that they are any less safe.  If PPD were removed and replaced with something else, sensitisation reactions would start to be clocked up against the new material and soon enough it would look just as bad as the PPD it replaced.

In fact even this simplifies the situation.  The more PPD there is around the more people who will be sensitised to it.  But in addition they are quite likely to sensitised to closely related chemicals also used in hair dyes as well. Most of the colourant materials are pretty closely related to each other chemically, and are quite likely to trigger off the same reactions as PPD.  By concentrating on PPD it is easy to give the quite false impression that so long as you avoid dyes containing PPD you will be okay.  This is far from the case.

In fact the real problem here is that there are relatively few approved chemicals for hair dying.  If you have a problem with one of them, you might find it quite hard to find another formulation different enough to not give you the same problem.  Banning one of the chemicals used in hair dyes doesn’t just shift the problem along it makes it worse as well by making even fewer choices available.

It might be countered that chemists should be working to come up with non-sensitising hair dyes and that the threat of legislation will increase the incentive to do so.  Well maybe.  The trouble is that we don’t have a very good way of predicting sensitisation.  Hair dyes are going to be small very reactive molecules that penentrate easily, and molecules are very likely to be sensitisers.  I think it would be great to have more to chose from and that would be a great help to people who want to dye their hair but have problems with what is available at the moment.  But I am pretty sure that any new options will not be ‘safer’ in any meaningful sense than what we have now.

The true situation is that hair dyes are harmless and safe for the vast majority of people.  There are risks of allergic reactions for a small minority of people, but the products are labelled to make this risk very clear.  Under very rare circumstances it is conceivable that using a hair dye might kill someone out of the blue with no prior warning.  This may have happened recently, but this has not been proved.  It is just as likely that something else caused the reactions.  We may never know one way or the other in these cases, but nonetheless the theoretical possibility that it might happen will continue for as long as hair dyes remain in use.  It won’t go away if PPD is banned.

Now whether as a society we are prepared to take this risk is something that neither solicitors nor cosmetic chemists have anything more to say than anyone else. It is quite simply a matter of opinion.  It seems to me that it is exactly the same situation as we face with peanut allergies.  These too can cause anaphylaxis, and have done so.  I haven’t looked into detail on this but Wikipedia quotes the estimated numbers of deaths per year from this cause in the UK as six.  Should peanut products be banned?  I honestly don’t know. As I am well aware of the level of risk but carry on eating them I suppose I am voting with my teeth against a peanut ban.  I don’t use hair dyes personally but I would not be deterred from using them.  Maybe I am too cavalier and should be a bit more careful.  I am not sure.

But I am sure that banning PPD is pointless. So much as I admire his spirit I have to humbly advise my learned friend to find something else to campaign about.  I don’t think he is going to help anyone with what he is doing right now.

One thought on “Advice for a lawyer

  1. Charlie

    Hi Colin, great post as always, very topical and a subject that I keep thinking about at the moment!

    I just wanted to comment really to say I noticed I’ve had some traffic from you recently and came to look at what it was sending people to me and found the link and I’m laughing a lot at this “Always worth a look, not least for the increasingly frantic profile picture updates.”

    Do I really do it that often? haha! Thank you anyway x

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