KeAira Gamble was just six years old the first time her hair was straightened with a chemical relaxer, a practice she continued over the years. When Ms. Gamble was 22, she was diagnosed with non-cancerous tumors, also known as uterine fibroids.
A year later, in March 2012, a study called Hair Relaxer Use and Risk of Uterine Leiomyomata in African American Women was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology linking fibroid risk with hair relaxer use, which is common among Black women.
“Unfortunately, by and large, the people who use hair relaxers are African American women and so traditionally the powers that be didn’t care too much about them,” said litigation attorney Bryan Brockington of The Mandel Law Firm in New York.
Ms. Gamble, 34, subsequently underwent a myomectomy to remove the fibroids but by 2019, she was diagnosed with a cyst on her left ovary, endometriosis and was informed that her fibroid tumors had returned.
Ms. Gamble sued hair relaxer manufacturers in the Southern District of Georgia federal court last year alleging they did not warn consumers of the impact of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), such as phthalates or plasticizers.
“Endocrine disrupting chemicals are chemicals or chemical mixtures that interfere with the normal activity of the endocrine system,” wrote attorney Clifford Carlson of the Bey & Associates law firm in Gamble’s Oct. 26 complaint. “Hair relaxers can and often do cause burns and lesions in the scalp, facilitating entry of hair relaxer constituents into the body.”
Similar lawsuits were filed in the Northern District of Illinois, the Southern District of New York and the Northern District of California as well as 15 additional districts.
Defendants named include Strength of Nature Global, L’Oréal, Namaste Laboratories and Soft Sheen Carson. Relaxer kits include Crème of Nature, Optimum Care, Dark & Lovely, Soft & Beautiful, Just for Me, ORS Olive Oil and Motions.
While Mr. Carlson is representing women who have developed uterine fibroids, L. Michael Flanagan of the Flanagan Injury Law Group in Chicago seeks plaintiffs diagnosed with uterine cancer after having used hair relaxers.
“Most women had these products applied on their scalp by a third party, such as a friend, a grandmother, or at a beauty salon so there are different forms of proof,” Mr. Flanagan told PacerMonitor News.
Mr. Carlson did not respond to requests for comment.
Gamble’s complaint was filed immediately following a study published in the Oct. 17 Journal of the National Cancer Institute that found women using chemical straightening have a higher risk of contracting uterine cancer.
“It’s a travesty that hair relaxer companies knowingly poisoned African American women over the course of decades,” alleged Mr. Flanagan.
Some 60% of Black women spent their money on the $718 million hair relaxer market in 2021, and that spending is expected to rise to $854 million by 2028. But a Cleveland defense attorney is unconvinced of the products’ link to illness.
“They refer generally in the complaints to multiple lines of products from multiple defendants without specifying which defendant and which products allegedly caused their condition,” said Marques Hillman Richeson, a partner at Jones Day law firm in Ohio. “They don’t really identify the specific chemical or chemicals in the hair relaxer products that allegedly are the cause.”
But now that individual complaints have been certified and consolidated into Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) in the Northern District of Illinois, Mr. Flanagan argues that discovery will erase any doubt.
“It’s just like every other mass tort like Roundup and firefighting foam where lead counsel from the multi-district litigation will get to the bottom of these chemicals,” he said in an interview. “We will hire experts and prove that the science links to the injury.”
Plaintiffs appear to have an advantage from the fact that Black people make up nearly 30% of Chicago’s population.
“In Chicago, in the Northern District of Illinois, I’m assuming they could draw from a fairly diverse jury pool,” Mr. Richeson told PacerMonitor News.
Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump was named a co-leader of the committee formed to make decisions for the plaintiffs on March 1.
Mr. Crump, nationally known for winning a $27 million settlement for George Floyd’s family, did not respond to requests for comment.
“The parties in all actions are likely to use many of the same experts, particularly with respect to the risks of exposure to phthalates and other EDCs,” wrote Karen Caldwell, chair of the U.S. Judicial Panel on MDL litigation in her Feb. 6 Transfer Order. “Centralization will minimize duplication of this expert discovery.”