They were diagnosed with uterine cancer and tumors. Now they are suing the makers of chemical hair straighteners

Three years ago, Rhonda Terrell was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer, which has since spread to her abdomen and liver.

She underwent a radical hysterectomy — the removal of the uterus, cervix, ovaries and fallopian tubes — trying to come to terms with how the disease had changed her life.

“I don’t like looking at survival rates,” Terrell said through tears.

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“Cancer is such a painful, painful, painful condition.”

Terrell is one of four women, three of whom spoke exclusively to NBC News, who have filed federal lawsuits against L’Oréal and other companies alleging that chemicals in the companies’ hair products have caused them to develop uterine cancer or other serious diseases had health effects.

The lawsuits follow the release of a study by the National Institutes of Health last month that found women who reported frequent use of hair straightening products – defined as more than four times in the previous year – were more than twice as likely to develop cervical cancer in comparison to those who have not used the products.

According to the lawsuits, three of the women had a hysterectomy — one at age 28.

Terrell, 55, of Guin, Alabama, said she started relaxing her hair at age 8 and stopped in her late 30s or early 40s.

She has uterine carcinosarcoma and underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and was in remission for just over two years before the cancer returned to her liver and abdomen in July, according to an interview and her lawsuit. She is undergoing chemotherapy.

“If I had known all those years ago that there would have been a warning on the packaging saying this could cause cancer, I wouldn’t have used it,” she said. “And I want to hold them accountable because I have granddaughters.”

Bernadette Gordon, who used chemical relaxants from around 1983 to 2015, believes it gave her breast and uterine cancer.

According to her lawsuit, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 at the age of 44, underwent aggressive chemotherapy for six months and had a double mastectomy in March 2018.

In 2021 she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and underwent a hysterectomy followed by six months of chemotherapy and radiation.

Three years ago, Rhonda Terrell was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer, which has since spread to her abdomen and liver. Recognition: ABC

Gordon, 49, of Springfield, Illinois, got emotional as she shared the toll successive cancer diagnoses and treatments have taken on her body and life.

“It was devastating for me,” she said.

All of the women said they were unaware that using chemical hair straighteners had put them at increased risk of cancer until the NIH study was published.

There was never anything on the products’ packaging, they said, and their lawsuits allege, suggesting that normal use of the products could cause them to develop uterine fibroids or breast or uterine cancer.

Alexandra White, head of the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences’ group on environmental and cancer epidemiology and lead author of the study, cautioned that the study does not prove that hair straightening products cause uterine cancer.

“This study is the first to show a possible link between frequent use of hair straightening products and uterine cancer,” she said.

But the women and their advocates believe otherwise. Diandra Debrosse Zimmermann, one of the lawyers representing the women, said “the science is out there to support our position”.

She said the complaints cite a number of studies that she believes will prove chemical hair straighteners are “key contributors, ultimately causing cervical cancer and a host of other conditions.”

Hair products like dyes and chemical straighteners/relaxers contain a number of chemicals that can act as carcinogens or endocrine disruptors and therefore may be important to cancer risk, White said.

Straightening irons in particular have been found to contain chemicals like phthalates, parabens, cyclosiloxanes and metals, and can release formaldehyde when heated, she said. L’Oréal did not respond to a request for comment on whether its products may or do contain these ingredients.

The researchers did not collect any information about brands or ingredients in the hair products the women used.

Rates of cervical cancer are still relatively low, accounting for 3.4 percent of estimated new cancer cases this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. However, rates of uterine cancer in the US have been increasing, particularly among black women.

White said the study showed black women were disproportionately more likely to use hair straighteners. The study found that 1.64 percent of women who never used chemical straighteners or relaxers would develop cervical cancer by age 70, and for frequent users that risk doubles to 4.05 percent.

L’Oréal responds

In a statement, L’Oréal said it “is confident in the safety of our products and believes that the lawsuits recently filed against us have no legal merit.”

“L’Oréal maintains the highest safety standards for all of its products,” the company said. “Our products undergo rigorous scientific evaluation of their safety by experts who also ensure we strictly comply with all regulations in every market we operate in.”

L’Oréal also shared a statement from the Personal Care Products Council, a national trade association representing cosmetic and personal care product companies, in response to the study, saying the study did not prove the products or their ingredients directly linked cervical cancer cause.

It also states that all cosmetic products and their ingredients, including hair straighteners and relaxers, are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

The other companies named in the lawsuits did not respond to requests for comment. The women are seeking damages, as well as payment of medical bills, attorneys’ fees and other expenses.

Rugieyatu Bhonopha, 39, of Vallejo, Calif., and Jenny Mitchell, 32, a Missouri resident whose plans to have children were dashed when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at 28 and underwent a hysterectomy, have both filed lawsuits .

They, like the other women, said they used chemical hair straighteners because they felt pressure from society — including from employers — to wear their hair straight and try to meet white beauty standards. This has changed over time as more women embrace their natural hair textures and sport natural hairstyles.

“I have to worry about whether or not I’ll get it back if it comes back in a different form,” Mitchell said. “Once you have uterine cancer, you may be more susceptible to colon cancer or breast cancer. A lot of people don’t know that.”

Bhonopha, whose lawsuit was filed Oct. 21, believes her fibroids were directly caused by her regular and prolonged exposure to phthalates and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in the hair care products she uses.

“It’s hard to come to the realization that you’re dealing with fibroids and miscarriage,” she said. “And you had no idea those products were dangerous, you didn’t know it had any of those harmful products in it. Obviously you wouldn’t have used them if you knew.”

Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who also represents Mitchell and Gordon, said the lawsuits are about raising awareness and removing these products from store shelves.

“It’s about telling every black and brown parent out there that we shouldn’t continue trying to conform to European beauty standards by having our hair straightened with these chemicals, at the cost of potentially destroying our wombs and being unable to care for babies.” get,” Crump said.

“So it’s a public health crisis.”

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James Brien

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