Family of mum killed by her hair dye may sue L’Oreal

Julie McCabe
Julie McCabe
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The family of a mother-of-two who fell into a coma and later died after a severe reaction to the hair dye she was using are considering taking legal action against its manufacturer L’Oreal.

A coroner today ruled that the death of Julie McCabe, from Cowling, near Keighley, in November 2012, was an accident.

The 38-year-old estate agent lapsed into a coma in October 2011 after using a L’Oreal hair product at her home after a shopping trip with her family.

Just over a year later, in November 2012, she died from heart problems relating to a brain injury.

The inquest into Mrs McCabe’s death heard that she had a black henna tattoo in Dubai in 2007 and her regular reactions to her hair dye increased after this.

Coroner Geoff Fell heard expert evidence which said the tattoos contained massive amounts of paraphenylenediamine (PPD) - the chemical in the hair dye which is thought to have caused her reaction - and that the tattoos increased susceptibility.

Today, returning an accidental death verdict, Mr Fell said he would be writing to the Department of Business Innovation and Skills to ask it to look into increasing public awareness of this danger.

He said: “People think it’s a good idea to let their children have a black henna tattoo.

“That child could go through life 10, 15, 30 years and the first time that child dyes its hair there could be an anaphylactic reaction.”

Mr Fell also called on the cosmetics industry to do more to find out how many customers have adverse reactions to their hair dyes, saying it had “grossly under-estimated” the scale of the issue.

PPDs are know to cause allergic reactions in a small number of cases but the industry had not found a replacement, the inquest in Skipton, North Yorkshire, heard.

The coroner said there was a massive gap between industry figures, which suggest four customers in a million suffered such a reaction, and academic research which suggests it was as many as 14 per cent.

Mr Fell said L’Oreal did not encourage customers to report such problems to it and urged the company to reconsider this position, and the industry as a whole to proactively commission more research.

The coroner decided that Mrs McCabe, of Cowling, near Keighley, was aware of her allergy to the hair dye as she had gone to her GP at least 16 times before to get treatment for much less severe reactions.

But he said he was aware of only one other death in the UK due to an anaphylactic reaction to hair dye.

The inquest in Skipton was told that Mrs McCabe had a lengthy history of allergic reactions from hair colourant and had visited her doctor between 16 and 20 times over a seven-year period regarding possible reactions to hair dye.

But, although these visits were noted on her record they were never flagged up as something that should have been watched out for.

During the inquest, Mrs McCabe’s husband Russell said he had been laying out dinner for the family on the day she was struck down.

He added that he was unaware she was allergic to hair dye and believed she was having a severe asthma attack.

Speaking after the hearing today, he said: “Julie was a wonderful wife and fantastic mother to our two children. We miss her every single day and her loss has torn our family apart.

“To lose any loved one is devastating enough but to lose someone in these circumstances at such a young age has been too much to bear. We will never recover from this loss.

“But we hope that some good can come of this tragedy and that people are now more aware of the potential dangers of these sorts of products. Had there been clearer warnings about the severe reactions on the labels it may have prevented this from ever happening.”

His family have now instructed law firm Slater and Gordon to investigate a potential civil action against the manufacturer of the hair dye, L’Oreal.

Carol Hopwood, of Slater and Gordon, representing the family, said: “Mrs McCabe could never have expected that a routine part of her beauty regime would have such devastating consequences.

“This tragedy highlights how common products contain potentially lethal chemicals and illustrates how important it is that clear warnings are placed on packaging to alert customers of the risk of serious injury or even death from the use of these products. It also vital that doctors are fully aware of the warning signs, what advice they should give patients and when patient should be referred to hospital.

“I would urge anyone who is using products like this and have had any adverse reactions to stop using them immediately and to speak to their doctor.”

Giving his verdict in court today, coroner Mr Fell said the hair dye industry had “no idea” about the extent of the problem of adverse reactions.

He said this was because it relied on customers reporting problems which they often failed to do, partly because - like Mrs McCabe - they wanted to continue using the product.

The inquest heard that as many as 50 per cent of people who reported problems kept using the dye.

The coroner also said the cosmetics industry had not conducted much original research compared with the academic sector which had generated a large range of papers,

Mr Fell said one academic study revealed an incidence of adverse reaction to hair dye at a rate of 140,000 per one million users.

The coroner said there was a “massive disconnect” between the figures available and concluded the number of people allergic to hair colourant was “grossly underestimated”.

He said: “Nobody has any idea how many customers are adversely affected by hair dye.”

And he added: “The industry is aware of the risk of anaphylaxis but the industry, it seems to me, has no idea of the incidents of non-fatal anaphylaxis due to hair dye.”

The coroner said even extremely serious incidents would not necessarily be reported back to companies by hospitals if the patients survived.

Mr Fell said he had considered some of the reasons why L’Oreal did not encourage customers to report reactions on its packaging, including the problems of “timewasters”.

But he said: “L’Oreal do not actively seek feedback. I think L’Oreal need to revisit that approach.”

Mr Fell gave a “short-form” conclusion to the inquest, which said: “Accidental death due to rare but known potential adverse reaction to hair dye which caused irreversible brain damage due to anaphylactic shock in October 30 2011.”

In a statement, a L’Oreal spokeswoman said: “Our thoughts are with Julie McCabe’s family. We welcome the coroner’s recommendations and will work with the Cosmetic, Toiletry & Perfumery Association and rest of industry to look at ways to improve gathering of information.

“We fully support his decision to send a report to BIS highlighting his, and the industry’s, concerns about black henna tattoos. We will support increased industry efforts to build awareness of the allergy risk black henna tattoos can cause.

“Sadly, this tragic accident highlights how important it is to follow safety instructions. We strongly recommend consumers read and follow safety and usage instructions clearly printed on our packs and notices.

“As stated on our pack, it is extremely important to do an allergy alert test at least 48 hours before use, each time the hair is coloured.

“If you have ever experienced any reaction after colouring your hair or any reaction after temporary tattooing with black henna you should not proceed.

“If you would like advice on colouring your hair safely, visit becoloursafe.com or contact our consumer care team on 0800 0304 031”