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The Beauty Shop as a Source of Breast Irradiation

          Beauty shops with x-ray machines, with beauticians as the operators? We realize that this chapter may evoke the feeling, "It just can't be true!" Sadly, it was true. And undoubtedly there have been breast-cancers induced by this particular mis-use of roentgen radiation.

          We learned about the use of x-ray machines in beauty shops in a 1930 paper by Dr. Henry Hazen. He is the same person who, in 1921, presented a paper entitled "The Roentgen-Ray Treatment of Diseases of the Skin" before the American Roentgen Ray Society (Hazen 1922). In his 1921 presentation, he both praised the efficacy of roentgen rays in dermatology and warned about the "disastrous results" impending from the post-war rush into roentgen therapy by physicians "with totally inadequate training." Physicians, not beauticians.

          We quote Dr. Hazen on both points (1922, p.254):

          "Roentgen rays are probably the most useful single therapeutic agent that the dermatologist possesses today. It is of the greatest value in both malignant and benign tumors, keratoses, warts, eczema, acne, lichen planus, some forms of tuberculosis, sycosis and folliculitis of the back of the neck, tinea tonsurans, tinea barbae, some cases of pruritis, granuloma annulare and mycosis fungoides."

          And the warning by Dr. Hazen:

          "At the same time a word of warning must be issued, for since the war scores of physicians with totally inadequate training are rushing into roentgen-ray therapy and it is certain that some disastrous results will follow ..."

          Would Professor Hazen have believed, in 1921, that he might one day encounter something even more troubling than inadequately trained physicians doing roentgen therapy?

X-Ray Machines and Operators with No Training

          In 1930, Dr. Hazen published a paper entitled "Injuries Resulting from Irradiation in Beauty Shops," in the American Journal of Roentgenology and Radium Therapy. We were amazed.

          He relates (Hazen 1930, p.409):

          "About five years ago a number of beauty shops in various cities installed roentgen machines for the purpose of treating superfluous hair. It is well known that from 1 to 2 mm. of aluminum was used as a filter. However, treatment was given for other conditions than hypertrichosis [excess, unwanted hair]. In my list is one who alleged that she was treated for acne, and another who alleged she was treated for freckles. The ten women who form the basis for this study state that their injuries were received in one or another beauty shop in the East." And:

          "In various meetings there have been many reports of damage to the skin alleged to be due to roentgen-ray treatment in beauty shops, but so far there have been no reports of damage to the gums as a result of this treatment. In this series of 10 cases no less than 7 women have received serious damage to their gums. This fact seems worthy of record."

And Were Breasts Irradiated Too?

          We are especially concerned about breasts in the "beauty-shop" problem, because hypertrichosis (unwanted, excess hair) in the nipple-region or in the arm pits is a common phenomenon. To the extent that some beauty-shops used x-rays to remove such hair, appreciable areas of the breasts were surely in the x-ray beam during the procedures.

          In earlier chapters, we have already mentioned erythema (reddening of the skin) and the "erythema dose" as about 300 Roentgens. Although Dr. Hazen does not mention breasts, he reports erythema as a prominent feature of his investigation, which means that some beauty-shops were delivering massive doses.

          After describing the physical features found in the injured women, Dr. Hazen wrote further (p.411):

          "It is worthy of note that in every instance there is the history of an erythema following the third or fourth treatment and of subsequent radiation being given in the presence of it. One can only marvel at the stupidity of the operators, and the fortitude or ignorance of the victims. Any move that can be made to protect beauty-seeking women from their own folly is to be commended. It is amazing that in many communities medical practice acts include only the prescribers of drugs, and permit any type of physiotherapist to apply his trade without let or hindrance, with a total disregard for the potential dangers of the therapeutic procedure."

The "Beauty-Shop Roentgen Department"

          There is no way we can provide a set of numbers for the Master Table from the "beauty-shop roentgen department." How many such places were there? How many customers per year were concerned about armpit hair? What was their average breast-dose? How many years did such shops operate? We doubt that anyone could estimate an annual average breast-dose for 1920-1960 from this source.

          It is certain, however is that the "beauty-shop roentgen department" did put a number of totally preventable breast-cancers "on the shelf" for delivery, gradually, in subsequent decades.

          What we wish to emphasize for readers of this book --- women in all walks of life, physicians, and researchers --- is that here is just one of many examples of radiation exposure to the breasts not recorded anywhere, except in the genes and chromosomes of breast-cells.

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