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HomeMedico-LegalThousands of black women sue over cancer from hair products claims

Thousands of black women sue over cancer from hair products claims

Leading hair straightening products are being blamed for causing cancer in thousands of women of colour across America, who with their lawyers, are planning a legal onslaught against the manufacturers in US courts, and calling for the removal of the products.

Last winter, Sheila Bush, a cosmetologist, saw an advertisement from a law firm on her television screen, urging viewers to call a toll-free number if they or someone they knew had used hair relaxers and been diagnosed with uterine cancer.

Reuters reports that Bush, who said she had used hair relaxers every six weeks for most of her life and was diagnosed with uterine cancer about a decade ago, picked up the phone.

The ads Bush saw, on TV as well as on her social media feeds, were part of a nationwide effort by law firms to sign up black women to file lawsuits alleging at least a dozen cosmetic companies, including L’Oreal and Revlon, sold hair relaxers containing chemicals that increased the risk of developing uterine cancer – and failed to warn customers.

The recruitment campaign was launched in October last year, days after a US National Institutes of Health (NIH) study found an association, though not a causal link, between frequent use of chemical hair relaxers and uterine cancer.

Hair straighteners like L’Oreal’s Dark & Lovely and Revlon’s Creme of Nature are marketed overwhelmingly to women of colour, according to the lawsuits.

L’Oreal and Revlon told Reuters their products are subject to rigorous safety reviews, adding that the NHI study authors had said they didn’t draw definitive conclusions about the cause of the women’s cancers and that more research was warranted.

“We do not believe the science supports a link between chemical hair straighteners or relaxers and cancer,” Revlon said.

L’Oreal said it was committed to offering the best products “for all skin and hair types, all genders, all identities, all cultures, all ages” and that its hair relaxers have a “rich heritage and history” originating with black inventors and entrepreneurs.

Namaste, which markets ORS Olive Oil relaxers, said all ingredients in its products are approved for cosmetic use by US regulators. “We do not believe the plaintiffs have shown, or will be able to show, that the use of Namaste hair relaxer products caused the injuries they allege in their complaints,” a lawyer for Namaste and its parent company, Dabur India, said.

The other companies named in the litigation declined to comment or didn't respond to requests.

The success of the legal claims will hinge on demonstrating the products were harmful and that the companies knew, or should have known, of the danger and failed to warn customers.

But the cases face hurdles: in addition to the potential limitations of the NIH study, plaintiffs are suing multiple companies, and if women lack receipts, they may struggle to provide evidence that they used specific products.

Ben Crump, who represented the family of George Floyd – murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 – and another lawyer, Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmerman, filed the first hair relaxer lawsuit on behalf of a Missouri woman, Jenny Mitchell, shortly after the NIH study was published.

Since then, more than 7 000 similar lawsuits have been filed by many plaintiffs’ lawyers. The cases have been consolidated in a Chicago federal court as part of a multidistrict litigation proceeding (MDL), a procedure designed to more efficiently manage lawsuits filed in multiple jurisdictions.

Even though the legal claims asserted in the lawsuits don’t allege racial discrimination, Crump says the cases should be viewed as “essentially civil rights issues”.

Most of the plaintiffs are women of colour, according to Jayne Conroy, a lawyer whose firm has filed at least 550 hair relaxer cases, adding that attorneys don’t have full demographic data on their clients. The complaint seeks unspecified damages.

Twice as likely to develop cancer

Uterine cancer is the most common form of female reproductive system cancer and rising in the US, especially among black women, according to the NIH.

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be about 66 000 new cases of uterine cancer diagnosed this year in the US, less than a quarter of the number of 297 790 new cases of invasive breast cancer, and more than three times the 19 710 cases of ovarian cancer.

The NIH study of more than 33 000 women found that those who reported using hair straightening products more than four times in the previous year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer as those who did not.

A total of 378 women in the study developed uterine cancer. Black women used the products more frequently than others, the study found.

The researchers did not collect information on the ingredients of specific products the women used, the NIH said.

But Dr Alexandra White, the lead author, told Reuters that hair straighteners have been found to include phthalates, parabens, cyclosiloxanes and metals, and may release formaldehyde when heated.

Next April, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to propose a rule banning formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals from hair-straightening products. An agency spokesperson provided no further details on timing.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and has been linked to nasopharyngeal cancer and leukaemia, according to the WHO.

The NIH study said phthalates and the other chemicals are suspected endocrine disruptors, which can interfere with the body’s hormones and are suspected of contributing to cancer risk.

“Formaldehyde is not an ingredient in Namaste’s hair relaxer products,” the company’s lawyer said. The other companies declined to comment or did not respond to a Reuters query on whether their products contain or release formaldehyde.

Companies and defence lawyers have pointed to what they say are flaws in the NIH study.

The companies named in the litigation asked the presiding judge in July to dismiss the lawsuits, saying the study was the first to raise a possible association between hair straightening products and uterine cancer, undermining plaintiffs’ argument that the companies knew or should have known of any risks related to the products.

The companies also noted that the NIH study consisted of sisters of women previously diagnosed with breast cancer “who therefore may have a genetic predisposition”, they said in a court filing.

Lead author White said in a statement in response to Reuters questions that there is currently no strong evidence linking family history of breast cancer to increased risk of uterine cancer.

The plaintiffs “rely entirely on vague allegations that the products, generally, contain ‘toxic chemicals’,” the companies’ defence lawyers said.

Plaintiffs believe the NIH study will persuade the judge that at least some of the cases should proceed to trial. Plaintiffs can advance their case without proving the products caused cancer, said Jennifer Hoekstra, a lawyer representing Bush.

The study from a reputable government institution such as the NIH is likely enough to get cases before a jury, she said.

Since November last year, plaintiffs’ lawyers have spent about $8m airing more than 40 000 television ads across the US, according to an analysis of marketing data compiled for Reuters by X Ante, a firm that tracks mass tort advertising for large companies, law firms and investment analysts.

 

Reuters article – Thousands of Black women claim hair relaxers gave them cancer (Open access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

FDA mulls ban on hair-straighteners

 

Uterine cancer risk linked to hair-straightening products – US study

 

US court to hear 60 consolidated lawsuits over L’Oreal hair straightener claims

 

US lawsuit claims L’Oreal’s hair straighteners caused cancer

 

 

 

 

 

 

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