The hair care and cosmetics market is flush with products that cause rashes, burning, bleeding—and perhaps far more serious health effects. So why won’t women stop using them?
One Monday afternoon in the fall of 2010, Jennifer Arce went to her sister Gina Griffin’s house near San Diego to try out a popular professional hair smoother called Brazilian Blowout Açai Professional Smoothing Solution. Most hair smoothers, treatments that get rid of frizz and leave hair smooth and silky, contain formaldehyde, which is noxious when inhaled. Brazilian Blowout was labeled formaldehyde-free.
Arce, who was 36 at the time, had just been certified by GIB, LLC, the company that produces Brazilian Blowout, to administer the treatment. Certification ensures that the stylist knows how the chemicals will react with hair. A hair stylist for almost 20 years, Arce had her first Brazilian Blowout client booked for the following Thursday, but wanted to try it on herself first.
Arce, who grew up in southern California and has blue eyes and blond, curly hair with brown streaks, knew she wanted to be a hair stylist since she was a child.
“I used to play with my Barbies. I had a little hair salon in my backyard,” she says. She used to flat iron her own hair all the time. “I liked it smooth and straight.”
At her sister’s house, Griffin, then 42 and working in the same salon as Arce, combed the soupy, cream-colored solution into Arce’s freshly washed, frizzy hair. Then she began to blow-dry it. So far so good. Next, she would flat iron it, then rinse, and then a final blow dry.
Before the heat settled in, Arce’s eyes began to tear up and scorch. She felt a pain that quickly became shockingly intense, as if someone had shoved an onion in her face and magnified the sting a million times. Her lungs felt aflame. Her sister couldn’t breathe either. The chemicals were still in her hair, though, so there was no choice but to continue the rinsing process.
Days after her first exposure to Brazilian Blowout, Arce continued to have difficulty breathing and sought medical help. Her doctor, who had never previously heard any complaints about Brazilian Blowout, said she might have chemical poisoning and prescribed an inhaler.
Turning to the Internet, Arce found a product warning on the website of Oregon Health and Science University. A Portland-area salon had alerted OHSU’s toxicology center about Brazilian Blowout several months earlier. The salon’s workers had suffered symptoms similar to those Arce experienced. OSHU researchers found that Brazilian Blowout contained a significant amount of formaldehyde. A chemical found in embalming fluid, formaldehyde is listed as a possible cause of cancer by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But last year, readers of American Salon magazine, the premier publication for beauty professionals, voted Brazilian Blowout the Best Professional Smoothing Treatment for the third year in a row. A visit to the product’s website shows beautiful models with straight, shiny locks. Bold letters on their “About” page tout the product as “the most innovative and effective in the world.”
Hair smoothers like Brazilian Blowout work by forming a protective protein barrier around the hair that leaves it easier to straighten and lasts for an average of three to four months. Most hair smoothers—including popular brands like Keratin Complex by Coppola, Marcia Teixeira and Brazilian Silk—contain keratin, a key protein found naturally in hair, nails and skin. Brazilian Blowout, however, is amino acid-based.
What both types of smoothers have in common is their use of formaldehyde, which is essential to the hair smoothing process. “The more formaldehyde there is,” says Eric Eulia, manager of Le Salon East in Manhattan, “the more it will last on your hair.”
That Monday afternoon was the first and last time Arce tried Brazilian Blowout. For weeks after that first treatment, Arce got sick every time she applied heat to her hair. She tried to wash the product out. That didn’t work. She sometimes had to leave her house with her hair wet because she couldn’t bear what happened when she straightened it. She was, however, very satisfied with the way her hair looked when it was finished that Monday. It was smooth and sleek.
“I loved it,” she says.
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Arce was not the first in her salon to raise concerns about Brazilian Blowout. When she first experienced symptoms, she says some of her co-workers also reported raw, sore throats and were put on antibiotics after providing the treatment to their customers.
Hoping to eliminate the problem, Arce and her co-workers brought the research they’d found to the salon’s owner. They wanted Brazilian Blowout banned from the salon. Arce says the owner banned all hair smoothing treatments, including Brazilian Blowout, without hesitation. Halting the in-demand treatments might have been a difficult decision, since they range from $200 to $500 per client.
Time passed, and Arce slowly started to feel healthy again. But one Tuesday about two months later, she came to work and noticed she was having trouble breathing. Again, she wasn’t alone. Her sister Gina began to get nosebleeds.
The salon, which serves a diverse clientele—white, black, young and old—seemed to have formaldehyde residue in the air from a hair smoothing treatment done three days earlier. Arce says the owner had allowed it to be done when she wasn’t working.
“It was kind of done behind our back,” says Arce.
Feeling betrayed by the salon’s owner, the two sisters quit and found work at a different salon. When hired, Arce showed the new owner OSHU’s research.
Arce says her new boss also immediately banned Brazilian Blowout, but that some of her new co-workers traveled to their clients’ homes to apply it there. Brazilian Blowout residue remains in the hair for weeks, so when those same clients came back for another wash, the heat from the blow dryer released the formaldehyde. (Arce felt uncomfortable revealing the names of the employers and co-workers she says continued to use Brazilian Blowout. “I don’t want to hurt their business in any way,” she says.)
Arce continued to get sicker, occasionally breaking out in rashes and coughing up blood. Trips to the doctor, covered by insurance through her husband’s job, became almost as routine as trips to the salon. She was now using two different inhalers. “If I get exposed, in order to even breathe I have to use the inhalers,” says Arce, who wouldn’t consider changing careers, despite her persistent ailments. “This is all I know how to do,” she says.
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Brazilian Blowout first appeared on the market almost six years ago, at the Argyle Salon & Spa in West Hollywood, California. Scores of publications, from The Washington Post to Shape magazine, reported that it was all the rave among celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry.
But after studies revealed that Brazilian Blowout was potentially hazardous, it was banned in several countries, including France, Germany, Ireland and Canada. In November 2010, the California attorney general filed a suit against Brazilian Blowout’s company, which is headquartered in the state, claiming they had been deceitful about the products’ dangerous chemicals. The FDA wrote a letter to the company’s CEO, Michael Brady, requesting that he fix the misleading labels. That didn’t happen. Last year Brazilian Blowout settled the lawsuit and paid a $600,000 fine as punishment. The agreement dictated that the company could continue to legally sell Brazilian Blowout, but only as long as it warns consumers about the formaldehyde in it. The company complied, and also settled a class-action lawsuit for almost $4.5 million.
The settlement with the California attorney general required that the Brazilian Blowout formula be tested to see if it violates California’s air quality law. Three bottles of the smoothing treatment were tested at three separate locations. The result found that the product’s fumes violated California’s Volatile Organic Compounds limits, which if exceeded can be a danger to human health.
The company issued a press release in November 2012, announcing it was moving production from Brazil to California. Although it still contains formaldehyde, the company said the U.S. version will meet California’s air quality standards.
“The only difference stylists will notice,” Brady said in the press release, “is a new sticker on the bottle which proudly reads ‘Made in the USA.’”
The company also introduced a new product, Brazilian Blowout ZERO+, which is completely formaldehyde free. “However, the results of the Zero products are not as good,” said Alonso Salguero, owner of Salon Ziba in Manhattan.
Brady told The New York Times that the class action lawsuit fine would be paid by his insurance company and stressed that Brazilian Blowout is harmless when used in a ventilated area. “We just want people to treat it like they do aspirin–make sure you only use it as directed,” Brady said. (Representatives of the Brazilian Blowout brand did not return a request for comment on this article.)
Brazilian Blowout is not the only cosmetic product that has reportedly caused irreparable bodily damage. Stillman’s Skin Bleach Cream was found to contain mercury, yet is still sold all over the world. Radithor, a mixture of radium and water meant to increase a man’s sex drive, also ran into problems and is no longer marketed. In 2012, a lawsuit was filed against Unilever, claiming that formaldehyde was present in the company’s Suave Professionals Keratin Infusion 30 Day Smoothing Kit. One woman, Tonja Millet, told Texas-based WFAA News that the Suave product “melted” her hair. She was told by the product’s consumer hotline that she most likely didn’t use it correctly. Unilever voluntarily recalled the product from stores in May 2012.
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For as long as women have rubbed, dyed, and smeared themselves with suspicious substances, entrepreneurs have been happy to abet them. Ruth deForest Lamb, in a gruesome 1936 expose titled American Chamber of Horrors, recounts tale after tale of women who suffer the consequences of using “criminal cosmetics” that were in fact not yet criminal.
In 1933, a woman named Mrs. Brown darkened her eyebrows and lashes with Lash Lure, a coal-tar-derived dye. It dripped into her eyes and she went blind within a week. In another case, a woman died due to injuries sustained from Lash Lure. There was also Koremlu, a hair-removal cream made with thallium, better known as a form of rat poison. Koremlu did remove hair, but it also caused difficulty with breathing, as well as paralysis and blindness. Koremlu’s inventor, Kora M. Lublin, swore her product was harmless if used properly. The American Medical Association issued warnings and reported cases of women developing conjunctivitis from Lash Lure. But it wasn’t enough, and activists like deForest Lamb were commonly referred to as ‘guinea pig muckrakers,’ an early 20th century term reserved for advocates of stronger drug and cosmetic regulation.
Another American horror product was the Elixir Sulfanilamide. Though the Elixir wasn’t a cosmetic, a 1937 mass poisoning caused so much outcry that the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act was passed the next year. The Elixir Sulfanilamide, produced by the S.E. Massengill Co. in Tennessee, was a drug used to treat streptococcal infections. Sulfanilamide was taken in powder and pill form for years, but it wasn’t until the company created a liquid form that it became deadly. The formula, which wasn’t tested for toxicity, contained diethylene glycol, a poisonous liquid found in antifreeze and printing ink. The first deaths were reported a month after the company shipped the Elixir. One doctor, Dr. A.S. Calhoun, had six of his patients die after he prescribed it.
“That realization has given me such days and nights of mental and spiritual agony as I did not believe a human being could undergo and survive,” Calhoun wrote in a letter dated October 1937.
Over 100 children and adults died after drinking Massengill’s elixir. The company’s owner denied responsibility for the deaths. “My chemists and I deeply regret the fatal results,” Dr. Samuel Evans Massengill said, “but there was no error in the manufacture of the product.” Technically, what the company did was not criminal– selling drugs and cosmetics untested for safety wasn’t illegal at that time.
The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act was the answer to the guinea pig muckrakers’ plea. The law dictated that the FDA could file lawsuits against companies that sold poisonous makeup or made false claims on the label. But cosmetic companies still didn’t have to report bad reactions to the FDA. And the FDA can only request, not demand, the recall of dangerous products from a store’s shelf—still true of cosmetics products to this day.
Despite the 1938 Act, manufactures have found ways to keep making dangerous products. In the early 1990’s, the Rio Hair Naturalizer System was marketed as an innovative, chemical-free hair straighter. Made from Brazilian forest plants, it was geared toward black women as an alternative to the corrosive relaxers used to straighten curly hair. One announcer, in an infomercial for the Naturalizer, swallowed some of the product to show that it was harmless. It might have been O.K. for ingestion, but was often damaging to hair. Some women complained that it turned their hair green. Others said it made their hair fall out. The FDA received over 1,800 complaints and issued a warning against using it. Testing of the product revealed it contained high levels of acid. Still, the makers of the product said there was nothing wrong with it. “It’s the result of improper use,” said Arthur Reiman, the U.S. counsel for World Rio Corp., in response to the complaints.
Six years ago, the FDA issued another warning about Age Intervention Eyelash, a treatment to enhance eyelashes distributed by Jan Marini Skin Research Inc. One of the ingredients was bimatoprost, which could cause swelling of the retina, decreased vision and blindness. U.S. Marshals eventually seized over 12,500 samples of the product, worth roughly $2 million. Another company, Allergan, currently makes Latisse, an eyelash enhancer treatment that also contains bimatoprost as the active ingredient.
The primary regulators in the makeup marketplace today are the Cosmetic Ingredient Review panel and the Personal Care Products Council. The PCPC represents the interests of over 600 cosmetics manufacturers (not including Brazilian Blowout), with some $250 billion in annual business. Every year the CIR, funded by the PCPC, spends around $1 million to evaluate more than 2,000 ingredients. Before Brazilian Blowout existed, the CIR had already tested the safety of formaldehyde. They concluded that it was safe to use as a preservative in makeup, but that no more than .2 percent formaldehyde should be used. However, when it comes to using formaldehyde in hair smoothing products, the CIR concluded it was flat-out unsafe.
If the CIR says an ingredient is unsafe, it’s up to the manufacturers to decide if they will comply, because its decisions are not binding.
“All we have is the pulpit,” says Alan Andersen, director of the CIR at the time of the Brazilian Blowout scandal. “If you’re a cosmetic company, you have to be pretty stupid to be using those [unsafe] chemicals.”
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For modern-day muckrakers like Arce, the voluntary compliance of the cosmetics industry is not enough. With over a million dollars spent to make cosmetics safe, formaldehyde-laced Brazilian Blowout still made it into Arce’s hair.
Arce joined the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a group of nonprofits founded in 2004 and dedicated to eliminating dangerous ingredients in makeup and personal care products. Their goal is to pass the 2013 Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act, an updated version of the 1938 law. They say there are too many dangerous products out there that are inappropriately considered safe. One example is the use of lead in lipstick, which first became a scandal over a decade ago. There’s still no safety standard for the amount of lead used in lipstick “because right now the industry gets to make it up,” says Janet Nudelman, a member of the Campaign. The group wrote the FDA four times asking them to regulate the amount of lead that can be used. “They haven’t, and they won’t,” she says.
But Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist and chief executive officer of Catalyst Cosmetic Development, said the amount of dangerous ingredients used, like lead and mercury, is too small to cause harm. The CIR and FDA agree.
Wilson says groups like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics exaggerate the danger of cosmetics. “I hate scare tactics,” says Wilson, who notes the amount used is rarely above .2 percent. “Why would we purposefully use ingredients that could kill you?”
If the 2013 Act is passed, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees the FDA) would be able to demand a product’s recall, and companies would have to register and notify the Secretary if one of their products injures anyone. Use of chemicals linked to cancer, like formaldehyde, would be banned.
The PCPC, meanwhile, is backing its own bill. The 2012 Cosmetic Safety Amendments Act, which PCPC supports, will allow the Secretary to uphold or strike down the CIR’s decisions, but the FDA still wouldn’t have recall power. The PCPC says their approach doesn’t impose “costly and unnecessary restrictions on American businesses.”
This act “may sound nice on the outside, but the dirty details inside would lock in the failed status quo,” responds Lisa Archer, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Both acts are currently being reviewed by congressional committees.
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One afternoon in November 2012, Dawn Marino, 33, sat on a plush black cushion inside a salon in Manhattan’s West Village. Marino started working there as an assistant after quitting her previous job in June 2011.
At the previous salon,Marino was also an assistant, blow-drying and flat ironing Brazilian Blowout-treated hair. The salon offered Brazilian Blowout discounts through Groupon. “People were coming in, like, one after the other,” says Marino. (Marino requested that both of her previous employers’ names not be used, as she did not want to jeopardize their business.)
After she started experiencing burning eyes, rashes on her arms and trouble breathing, Marino says she told the salon’s owner that Brazilian Blowout was making her sick, but nothing changed.
“She told me that it must have been in my head,” said Marino, who is tall, with long reddish-brown hair. Marino says she and her co-workers asked the owner to purchase a ventilator to minimize the formaldehyde fumes, but that the owner ignored their request.
Today, Marino carriers a plastic bag on the subway in case she has to vomit. She believes the formaldehyde has made her immune system intolerant of other natural substances, mainly citric acid and beeswax.
“My immune system sometimes confuses things,” she says. Not only does she have bad reactions to skin moisturizers, hair grease and lip balms that contain beeswax, but if she eats avocados, blueberries, oranges or strawberries, they come right back up.
Marino’s doctor warned that continued exposure would make her sicker. “I remember walking home from the doctor and crying the whole way,” she says.
Like Arce’s new salon, Marino’s new workplace doesn’t offer Brazilian Blowout.
But again, women who already have the product in their hair came in from time to time. Marino has tried to tell other women, including her colleagues, that it’s not good for them, but says they don’t listen.
“Many stylists don’t even want to hear it,” she says.
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Bianca Vitale waits to get a hair smoothing treatment at Le Salon East on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The salon, which has black chairs and shiny, pale gray floors, doesn’t use Brazilian Blowout, but does us a keratin smoothing treatment called Rejuvenol, which contains a small amount of formaldehyde. Eric Eulia, the manager, says they tried Brazilian Blowout in the past, but “it was too much.”
Vitale recalls getting an itchy scalp the first time she received a Brazilian Blowout treatment at another salon, but nothing worse than that. She has her curly hair treated in the summer to make it more manageable in the heat. “It’s just more practical for me in terms of working in an office,” says Vitale. “It looks more professional.”
Alaina, another customer at Le Salon East, is also getting a hair smoothing treatment. “It makes my hair less frizzy, especially in the summer, in the humidity,” says Alaina, who felt uncomfortable giving her last name. She too has never experienced itchy eyes or trouble breathing; just an unpleasant smell. The treatments dramatically cut the time she spends styling her naturally curly hair. “I have a two-year-old at home, and I don’t have much time to spend on myself,” says Alaina.
Deb Gerry gets hair-smoothing treatments all year round. It takes her thirty minutes to blow dry her hair without the treatments. “Now it takes me seven minutes to blow it out straight,” said Gerry at Le Salon East. “I sleep for an extra half hour in the morning.”
Gerry has never felt any ill effects from treatments, and isn’t concerned about the possibility of getting sick. “What I’m breathing in in New York City is probably worse than the hour and a half I spend in this salon, right?”
Alfredo, a hair stylist at Le Salon East, stands behind Gerry as he flat irons her hair. An industrial gas mask covers the bottom half of his face, protecting his nose and mouth from the formaldehyde fumes. He’s never done a hair smoothing treatment without one.
“The fumes are kind of overpowering sometimes,” said Alfredo, who has been doing smoothing treatments for two years. “Sometimes it bothers my eyes.” But Alfredo still does the treatments–four a day. “I do it because it’s popular. They don’t want frizzy hair, and it works perfect.”
“It’s a risk for us to do these treatments,” says Eulia, the salon’s manager. The smoothing treatment Le Salon East uses contains less than one percent of formaldehyde. That small percentage makes ventilation throughout the entire salon necessary. The salon has eight vents spread out directly beneath the ceiling, as well as a giant fan in the back.
Across town at Salon Ziba, all clients and stylists wear masks during each smoothing treatment. The salon’s owner, Salguero, bought a $1,300 flat iron with filters on the side that immediately suck in the fumes as it glides through the hair. Salguero also has a three-part ventilation regimen from Aerovex Systems– a nearly-$2,000 purchase including an air purifier and air conditioner with carbon filters that help cleanse the air. The package is complete with the Chemical Source Capture System, a machine resembling a mini refrigerator with a long, white funnel sticking out on top. Attached to the funnel’s end is a clear, flattened cone that’s placed above the client’s head to absorb the fumes.
Yet despite all the fancy equipment, Salon Ziba only offers Brazilian Blowout either early in the morning or at night when the salon is near empty. Salguero does this to protect his stylists and clients from too much formaldehyde exposure. Even with such an elaborate setup, salon owners can’t please everyone.
“I cannot take away the fact that some people are allergic,” Salguero said. “There is so much chemicals out there that we are always exposed to but we don’t know.”
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Cosmetic researchers like Wilson do not take what has happened with Brazilian Blowout lightly. Wilson notes that before a new product is marketed, it goes through the Human Repeat Insult Patch Test, a six- to seven-week safety test using 50 to 200 testers.
“The brand typically will have no idea who these people are,” says Wilson.
A sample of the new product is smeared onto a section of the person’s back. A patch with pores in it then goes on top of that smear. The pores, meant to create the “most irritating environment possible,” allow the product to penetrate deep into the skin. If even one person has a reaction from the test, the product is usually rejected.
“Now the Brazilian Blowout, that’s a little tricky,” says Wilson. “Maybe the manufacturers didn’t know it was toxic.”
Nevertheless, Wilson says the product wasn’t fully evaluated by the makers of Brazilian Blowout. A larger, more reputable cosmetics giant like Johnson & Johnson or Estée Lauder would have tested Brazilian Blowout in the salon before approving it, she says. If tests revealed anything potentially damaging, “It would never have seen the light of day.” Smaller, lesser-known brands such as Brazilian Blowout, she says, ruin things for the rest of them.
During California’s 2010 lawsuit over Brazilian Blowout, the product’s producers argued that their product did not contain formaldehyde, but methylene glycol. Methylene glycol is a chemical mixture of water and formaldehyde, so it’s not actually formaldehyde, the company asserted. In other words, although formaldehyde fumes are released in the application process, the actual solution inside the bottle is “formaldehyde-free.”
Tests on Brazilian Blowout by Oregon’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which protects workplace safety, found it contained over ten percent formaldehyde. By OSHA standards, all products that emit more than .1 percent formaldehyde must come with a hazard warning.
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Dr. Vivian Diller, a former model and now a New York City psychologist who has worked with cosmetic researchers in the past, says it’s a given that there should be a new law requiring safer makeup. But what really needs to change, she says, is the casual approach women take when wearing makeup.
“We need to step back from our obsessions and our needs that are so compelling that we don’t take pause to think about what we are putting on our faces,” says Diller.
That may not happen any time soon. A survey of 1,300 women released last year by Harris Interactive found that almost half of American women refuse to go without wearing makeup because they feel less attractive without it. Another recent study from the British chain Superdrug found that the average woman spends $13,000 on makeup in her lifetime.
“We are in a culture that lends itself to people becoming reliant on makeup to feel good about ourselves,” says Diller. If makeup is used as an escape to hide from one’s perceived ugliness, “then you are letting the product control you rather than you using the product.”
Despite everything that’s happened, Marino still loves makeup. “It’s important for my job, the way I project myself,” she says. In the past, she used foundation from NARS, creams from the company Philosophy, and makeup remover form Ponds. She’s allergic to all of them now. The last time she used NARS foundation, her cheeks broke out in a rash. She also tried lipstick, a shade of pink, from the same brand. She had a reaction to that too. “Inside my mouth it was like a burning feeling,” she says. Yet somehow she must wear makeup, so she went through a trial and error phase. When a product didn’t burn, she had a keeper.
Once Marino became familiar with what brands she couldn’t use, she was able to isolate which ingredients caused her reactions. She used to buy everything at the popular makeup chain Sephora. Not anymore. Instead, she shops online at websites like AbesMarket.com and Etsy for organic makeup with ingredients she can use.
Marino left her job at the second salon earlier this year because she didn’t feel supported. Marino says her boss expressed concerns about her interacting with clients while she had respiratory problems.
Marino now does freelance work and takes assignments as a hairstylist on photo shoots. Finding another salon job hasn’t been easy because there aren’t many places that completely ban hair-smoothing treatments.
Before she left the salon, however, Marino lifted her hand and pointed to her eyes, which were rimmed with green eyeliner from Urban Decay, one of the few makeup brands she can wear. Her mascara was from Christian Dior. Expensive, but wearable, she said. Then Marino pointed to her lips, colored with rouge from Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics.
When asked what she thought about why women still use Brazilian Blowout despite all the negative information that is out there, her eyes went wide and a grin spread across her face as she said, simply, “Vanity.”
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Oulimata Ba is a freelance journalist living on Long Island. Her work has been featured in the New York Amsterdam News, City Limits, and Voices of NY.
Jackie Snow is a freelance multimedia journalist whose work has appeared on VanityFair.com and The Atlantic.