The daughter of woman who died after an allergic reaction to hair dye fears it could happen again

It is 10 years since Abi McCabe’s mother suffered a fatal allergic reaction to hair dye. She tells Catherine Scott why she is worried it could happen again

Abi McCabe was just 15 years old when her mother Julie suffered a violent allergic reaction to hair dye, putting her into a coma for more than a year before she died aged 39.

For graphic designer Abi , now 24, the last 10 years since the tragedy have been a struggle as she battled with anxiety and panic attacks.

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She has struggled to talk about what happened to her mother – something she now thinks she should have done sooner – but now wants to speak out, as she fears a similar tragedy could happen again.

Abi McCabe from near Skipton, whose mum died 10 years ago after having an allergic reaction after using hair dye.  Picture Tony Johnson
Abi McCabe from near Skipton, whose mum died 10 years ago after having an allergic reaction after using hair dye. Picture Tony Johnson

“I still get contacted by people who have had allergic reactions to home dye kits,” says Abi, from Cowling, near Keighley.

“If you go to a hair salon and have hair dye you now have to have a patch test by law and there are warnings on the hair dyes now but the chemical, PPD, that led to mum’s death are still in there which just can’t be right.

“There are instructions on the hair dye but I am worried that people will have forgotten what happened to mum and it will happen again.”

Abi remembers how her mum had just put hair dye on one evening, while she and her brother Luke were watching television.

Abi with her mum Julie who died after an allergic reaction to hair dye. Picture:Abi McCabe

“I remember hearing her say to my dad that her scalp was starting to itch and burn and so she was going to wash the dye off,” recalls Abi. “She’d only had it on for five minutes.” The next thing she knew her mum had collapsed.

“She was out on the front driveway, she began screaming that she couldn’t breathe.”

Abi’s father rang for an ambulance but he feared it 
would take too long and so drove Julie to the hospital himself. Once at Airedale Hospital Julie had to be resuscitated several times.

“They shaved her hair off as it was the only way to get all the dye off her, but by then she had slipped into a coma.”

Julie McCabe died age 39 after being in a coma for a year after suffering an allergic reaction to hair dye

For more than a year Julie, an estate agent, was on a life-support machine in a coma. She never regained consciousness. After a few months in Airedale, when the family would visit her every day, there was no more they could do for her and she was transferred to a specialist hospital in Birmingham.

“We would drive down to Birmingham every Sunday – more than two hours there and two hours back for six months,” recalls Abi. “They tried everything and had the best team but in the end there was nothing they could do for her. I was doing my GCSEs at the time and I used them to distract myself from what was happening and to try to make something of myself.”

But after more than a year Julie died in November 2011.

“She had suffered extreme brain damage through lack of oxygen to her brain and eventually her body started to shut down,” says Abi.

Abi with her mum Julie. Abi was just 15 when her mum fell intoa coma after using hair dye

An inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death. The court heard that a black henna tattoo that Julie had while in Dubai in 2007 celebrating husband Russell’s 40th birthday, is believed to have caused the anaphylactic reaction to the chemicals in the L’Oreal hair dye that she used on that fateful day.

The coroner demanded more public awareness of the dangers of black henna and its potential reaction with hair dye.

The inquest was also told that Julie had suffered other allergic reactions and had even been to the doctor, but no one ever associated it with the hair dye.

As a result some of the Press reports were distressing for Abi and her family.

“Some made it sound like it was mum’s fault, like she should have known. It just made things so much worse, as she had no idea that it was the chemical in the hair dye that was making her poorly.”

So rather than dealing with her grief, Abi buried it.

Abi fears that more people may suffer an allergic reaction to hair dye ten years after her mum fell into a coma. Picture Tony Johnson

“After mum died I just tried to put it to the back of my mind and not think about it that much. I tried to live the normal life of a 16-year-old.

“For a lot of years I pushed it to the back of my mind. I didn’t want to face it. We did have counselling when it first happened but it was too soon and the wrong time for me. I felt okay, I didn’t feel like I needed it, but I was wrong.”

Soon Abi’s grief caught up with her and in 2015 she started to have breathing problems and dizzy spells.

“I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Then I felt like I was having a heart attack and my brother rushed me to hospital but they ruled it as a major panic attack and said it’s stress through grieving for the loss of your mother.

“I never had anxiety in my life and it was something I never thought I would experience.”

But Abi now believes she has come to terms with her mother’s death.

She’s graduated from Leeds Beckett University and is now a freelance graphic designer.

“I like to think that mum would have been proud of me,” she says.

And Abi is determined that her memory lives on.

“It was such a big story 10 years ago that I worry people have forgotten about it. I really want to raise the profile again, to ask the cosmetic companies why they are still using these toxic chemicals in their hair dye and to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Abi also wants to warn anyone considering using hair dye, particular DIY kits at home, to be very careful.

“I would urge everyone to think twice before using hair dye with PPD in it. I have had friends contact me to say they would still be using it if they hadn’t heard my mum’s story.

“I am worried that 10 years on, what happened to her will be forgotten and that more people could end up with an allergic reaction like her with tragic consequences.”