In defence of personal injury lawyers: One man's crusade to ban PPD
Sometimes things happen that really make you stop and think. Often it happens when normal people are just going about their normal business and then something extraordinary happens to them. Sadly it’s not normally anything good. But it’s striking because it could happen to anyone, it could happen to you or someone you know. And you can’t even begin to think what it would be like if it did.
I can’t imagine how the family of Julie McCabe are feeling right now. One minute she was a perfectly healthy 38-year-old mother of two dyeing her hair, the next she was struggling to breathe and is now in a coma on life support with little chance of recovery. I have no idea how they feel about finding out she isn’t the first person this had happened to and perhaps, therefore, her tragedy could have been prevented. What I do know is, for all my carping about how bad lawyers are, if this happened to anyone I love I would find a good one.
Greg Almond has represented several clients who he says have suffered severe allergic reactions after colouring their hair. He is calling on the government to ban the use of para-phenylenediamine (PPD) in hair dyes and cosmetics, a campaign he has stepped up since the death of 17-year-old Tabatha McCourt following a violent fit 20 minutes after she coloured her hair. So far there has been little in the way of a meaningful government response, despite questions in parliament and a freedom of information request. It is probably unfair to say this inaction is responsible for Mrs McCabe’s life-threatening condition, but it doesn’t seem unfair to suggest that continued heel dragging could result in something similar happening to someone else.
You may be wondering how, and why, a chemical capable of causing such harm is readily used in consumer products, particularly when even the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) says sensitivity or allergy to it can ‘develop over time’. As you would expect, the CTPA goes on to say that European Commission scientists say PPD is safe to use as a hair dye when the safety instructions are followed.
As far as I can tell, these ‘safety instructions’ consist of doing a patch test, which Mrs McCabe is believed to have done. Another of Almond’s clients did a patch test before applying a home hair dye kit and shortly afterwards suffered a severe reaction, including a burning sensation on her head and face and breathing problems. The CTPA’s excuse that there is no alternative to PPD in hair dye is wrong. Even if it weren’t, consumers should be properly warned: I’d rather have grey hair than risk extreme trauma or even death.
The continued use of PPD is surely an overhang from the 60s and 70s when smoking was good for you and we sprayed DDT all over the countryside (although we were still doing that in 1984). It is by no means the only harmful chemical used in cosmetics (see here for some of the other nasties you could be slapping on your body every day) but it is probably the most dangerous. PPD has been banned in a number of European countries and was named allergen of the year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2006: I don’t think this is an award you get a gold statue for.
It is perhaps odd that it is Almond who is the driving force behind the campaign for a ban and not a consumer or health organisation (although Asthma UK has now leant its support). He himself admits it ‘might seem unusual for a law firm to be leading a campaign calling for a ban on a hair dye product’. But it really makes perfect sense. Not only do lawyers often see the consequences of other people’s actions, they can easily identify widespread problems and be a voice for those who have suffered. Contrary to the belief that personal injury lawyers are just making a living out of people’s misery, Almond is proof that for most their work is about getting a remedy for their client and seeking to address issues in the wider public interest.
Almond is certainly not the first lawyer to take to campaigning, but most don’t step outside the courtroom or media and enter the world normally inhabited by lobbyists. In my experience, most legal professionals wouldn’t want to go near anything quite as disreputable as lobbying, but there is, or at least should be, a strong relationship between the two. Where now lawyers advise clients on what the law means for them, they could be advising on what the law should be and lobbying for that change. Put that way it doesn’t seem quite such a grubby activity.
The problem for lawyers is that campaigning and lobbying are not logical activities. Governments, and for that matter consumers, often behave irrationally and extremely short-sightedly. This probably comes as a shock to any lawyer attempting to engage with the government or with consumers at large, since the law is, by its very nature, much more predictable. Ministers often have pet projects, strong ideological imperatives, factional ties, or constituency pressures that mean they don’t act very coherently. Consumers often do one thing and say another and mobilising them is notoriously hard and usually quite expensive (just ask Sound off for Justice).
Nonetheless, these pressures and peculiarities should not prevent the government from taking quick action over PPD. Even if there is a strong cosmetics lobby (and I am not aware of one) I can’t imagine for a moment that it wants more blood on its hands over PPD, although I suspect they’ll carry on using some of the other, slightly less dodgy ones for as long as possible. Maybe ministers are instead too busy banning things that can’t be banned, like referral fees. Or reorganising things that don’t need to be reorganised, like the civil costs regime. Or just perhaps, now that another woman is dangerously ill after doing something as ordinary as dyeing her hair, they’ll do something.
Please sign the e-petition calling on the government to ban the use of PPD in cosmetic products.