Chapter 1: Hair relaxers
First came the study.
Then, just days later, came the lawsuits.
Last October, the National Cancer Institute released a study that showed women who frequently used chemical hair relaxers may have a higher risk of developing uterine cancer than women who do not use them.
Within a week, multiple suits were filed against L'Oreal and other brands and companies that manufacture and market chemical relaxers. Court documents released this month report that there are currently more than 55 lawsuits pending in courts across the country.
"We have thousands of cases in our office right now that we are currently investigating," attorney Aigner Kolom said.
Kolom is a principal with Alabama-based Beasley-Allen law firm and represents clients around the country, including many who are hoping to file civil suits against the producers of hair relaxer products.
Chapter 2: The Study
The NCI's study was released on October 17. Researchers studied the associations between various hair product use and rates of uterine cancer in nearly 34,000 women over a more than 10-year period. The study focused on the use of perms, body wave perms, dyes and chemical straighteners.
The study states researchers did not find a correlation between uterine cancer cases and perms, body wave perms or dyes. However, after identifying 378 uterine cancer cases, researchers reported finding that "use of straightening products in the previous 12 months was associated with higher incident uterine cancer rates" with a stronger association found in people who used them frequently (more than four times per year) compared to people who never use them.
As a baseline, the study predicts that 1.64% of women who never use chemical straighteners will develop uterine cancer by the age of 70. Based on their findings, researchers predict 4.05% of women who use the products frequently will develop uterine cancer. Researchers predict that for every 42 women who frequently (more than four times per year) used chemical hair straighteners, one additional uterine cancer case would be expected.
The study states that while previous research has shown a relationship between these products and other types of hormone-related cancers like ovarian cancer and breast cancer, this is the first research published that focuses on uterine cancer.
The report states hair products are "a predominant exposure pathway to various EDCs.” EDC stands for endocrine disrupting chemicals.
According to the research, "it has been hypothesized that synthetic estrogenic compounds such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) could contribute to uterine cancer risk because of their ability to alter hormonal actions."
The study does not identify any specific hair relaxer brands or companies or even identify a specific chemical in the products, stating that more research needs to be done to "identify the chemical ingredients, which might result in the elevated rates."
Chapter 3: Legal Battle
Kolom has filed multiple lawsuits on behalf of her clients against hair relaxer manufacturers.
"They all…we all…wanted straight hair," Kolom said. "I think a lot of these companies are pushing this straight hair on us.”
Kolom's suits, along with others reviewed by WFAA, dedicate multiple pages to the history of Black hair in America and how that history contributes to Black women seeking products and services to straighten their hair while showcasing a number of ads for the products featuring images of Black women with straightened hair.
These lawsuits claim that many hair relaxers contain chemicals in the "fragrance" or "perfume" portion of the product, that aren't listed as ingredients.
According to the FDA's website, "...under U.S. regulations, fragrance and flavor ingredients can be listed simply as “Fragrance” or “Flavor.”
WFAA reached out to the FDA, asking whether it would conduct an investigation or review any of these products following the study.
A representative responded, "The FDA does not comment on possible, pending or ongoing litigation."
When WFAA clarified that the request was concerning the products themselves, not the litigation involving the manufacturers, the FDA maintained it does not have a further response.
L'Oreal is the parent company behind brands like SoftSheen Carson and Dark & Lovely. L'Oreal provided WFAA with this statement:
“We are confident in the safety of our products and believe the recent lawsuits filed against us have no legal merit. L’Oréal upholds the highest standards of safety for all its products. Our products are subject to a rigorous scientific evaluation of their safety by experts who also ensure that we follow strictly all regulations in every market in which we operate.”
Earlier this month, a federal judicial panel ruled that all hair relaxer cases will be consolidated to one court in what's called multidistrict litigation, or MDL. The court document ordering the MDL stated the purpose of this move is to make the process more efficient, since more than 55 lawsuits have been filed on this issue across the country.
Companies like L'Oreal and Namaste Laboratories, the company that produces Olive Oil relaxers, filed court documents opposed to consolidating the cases.
In a filing related to the consolidation of the lawsuits, L'Oreal stated "...there is no allegation that a specific product made by (for example) L’Oréal USA contained EDCs ... and led to a particular plaintiff’s alleged condition. Instead, the actions refer generally to lines of products and do not identify the chemical or chemicals contained in those products that might increase the risk of the medical conditions alleged.”
In a similar court filing, Namaste wrote: "Not surprisingly, the researchers concluded that additional studies are needed for a number of reasons, including to understand the effect of various potential confounding factors, to confirm the researchers’ findings in different populations, and to identify chemical ingredients."
Larry Taylor Jr., a Dallas attorney who is a managing partner for The Cochran Firm, says the number of filed cases continues to grow.
“I’ve done this for a number of years, and I’m still wrestling emotionally with these clients and what they have to go through because of corporate irresponsibility,” Taylor said.
Chapter 4: Next steps
The cases on this issue have been assigned to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, which is in Chicago. Judge Mary Rowland will oversee the proceedings.
Attorneys on both sides are waiting for an order from Judge Rowland laying out how they are to proceed in this case.