The 12 Most Shocking Health Scandals of 2016
2016's biggest health scandals
To say it’s been a roller coaster year would be an understatement. From politics (greetings, President Trump) to celebrity splits (we’ll miss you, Brangelina), there’s been no shortage of shocking news during the past 12 months. The health and wellness world wasn’t exempt from the drama, either. Long-held health recommendations were abandoned, pharmaceutical price hikes enraged Americans nationwide, and several companies were accused of selling products that allegedly harmed consumers' health—and they had to pay out huge settlements as a result. Here, the biggest health-related scandals that shocked us in 2016.
WEN users file class action lawsuit over hair loss
Last December, 200 women filed a class action lawsuit against WEN, the hair-care line run by celebrity hair stylist Chaz Dean. The women in the suit claimed the brand’s sulfate-free cleansing conditioner was causing their hair to fall out. They also said that the product, which is meant to be massaged into the scalp in lieu of regular shampoo, triggered “severe and possibly permanent damage to hair, including significant hair loss to the point of visible bald spots, hair breakage, scalp irritation, and rash.”
This past November, the WEN class action lawsuit was finally given preliminary approval for a $26.3 million settlement by a federal judge in Los Angeles—meaning that if a U.S. district judge approves the lawsuit, customers who experienced negative side effects could receive up to $20,000.
But if you regularly co-wash your hair and haven’t experienced problems, don’t panic: it’s probably fine to continue using a cleansing conditioner, according to the dermatologists who talked to Health in November. “If there were a specific depilatory ingredient in these products, it would affect more women,” said May Gail Mercurio, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Mylan hikes price of EpiPen
Just as families were getting ready to send their kids back to school, a price-gouging scandal erupted surrounding Mylan, the maker of EpiPen auto-injection devices. Money reported that prices on the emergency allergy treatment have increased by more than 600% since 2008—a standard two-pack, which cost around $100 in 2008, now rings in at more than $735. (To make matters worse, Mylan executives appear to have been profiting enormously from the price jump: the CEO salary increased from $2,453,456 in 2007 to $18,931,068 in 2015, according to NBC News.)
Some families resorted to DIY’ing EpiPens at home by getting a prescription for epinephrine and injecting the medication with a regular syringe—a “hack” that many doctors caution against, since the homemade version, while cost-effective, can be difficult to use correctly in an emergency.
After waves of criticism, Mylan announced they would be making a generic EpiPen device that’s more affordable, around $300 for a two-pack. At a recent Forbes summit, Mylan CEO Heather Bresch took “full responsibility” for the price hike and argued that the increase helped cover improvements that make the device easier to use and reduce risk of accidental injury.
Butter may not actually hurt your heart, study says
For years, doctors have told patients that consuming too many saturated fats—found in butter, cheese, red meat, and other animal-based foods—raises “bad” LDL cholesterol and increases your risk of heart disease, while monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados) have heart-health benefits. But should we really be lumping butter into that “bad” category? In a June report published in PLOS ONE, researchers analyzed more than 600,000 people and concluded that consuming butter didn’t increase heart disease risk. The report, which was widely shared across social media, had many people rejoicing for an excuse to spread their butter guilt-free.
But not so fast: other recent research appears to be bad news for butter lovers. A study published in The BMJ in November found that replacing just 1% of your calories from saturated fatty acids with a better-for-you option (think vegetable oils, nuts, or seeds) could reduce risk of heart disease by up to 8%.
Report says flossing your teeth is pointless
In August, the Associated Press published an investigation that challenged the longstanding recommendation to floss daily for good oral health. After reviewing 25 studies comparing tooth-brushing alone with tooth-brushing and flossing, the AP found “weak, very unreliable” evidence that dental floss has benefits.
But you might not want to ditch your floss just yet. When Health spoke to Matthew Messina, a dentist and consumer advisor for the American Dental Association, he stressed that flossing has been shown to reduce inflammation and helps remove food (and bacteria) that brushing cannot. What’s more, it’s easy and inexpensive to do. “As a dentist, I can tell you that flossing every day, once a day is the best thing,” Messina told us. “But I’ll take three days a week, I’ll take sunny days or rainy days… Sometimes is better than never as a step toward getting those benefits.”
EOS lip balm users file class action lawsuit over skin rashes
Could those colorful little EOS lip balms cause some people to develop a terrible rash? Many EOS fans were shocked when a class action lawsuit was filed earlier this year claiming the popular product triggered a dry, coarse rash for Los Angeles-based customer Rachael Cronin within a few hours of use. According to the lawsuit, shortly after Cronin shared images of her rash on Facebook, many other EOS customers commented to share similar experiences.
However, the lawsuit was quickly resolved a few weeks later: “Our products are safe—and this settlement confirms that,” the company announced in a statement. In an interview with Health, New York City dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, told us that while he couldn’t comment on the specific lawsuit, “allergies, irritation, lip licking, dry weather, certain foods, some systemic diseases, even excessive drooling,” could all play a part in developing such a rash.
Juries rule Johnson & Johnson liable in ovarian cancer deaths
There were multiple headlines this year surrounding a possible link between Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder and ovarian cancer. A Missouri jury ruled in February that the company must pay $72 million to the family of the late Jacqueline Fox, who died of the disease in 2015. A few months later, another Missouri jury ruled that Johnson & Johnson should pay $55 million to an ovarian cancer survivor from South Dakota. And in October, a California woman was awarded more than $70 million in a similar lawsuit. Two other suits in New Jersey, however, were thrown out for insufficient evidence, and Johnson & Johnson maintains that their talc-based baby powders are safe.
So does using baby powder down there really cause cancer? In a previous interview with Health, Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Services at Yale School of Medicine, explained that the data is “wishy-washy”: “Some studies haven’t found a connection, and other ones have only shown a small increase in the hazard ratio [or risk],” she said. But if you’re understandably hesitant to use talc-based powders given these headlines, look for a baby powder product that contains cornstarch, which has not been linked to ovarian cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Coconut oil may not be so healthy after all
For years, people have been lauding coconut oil as an all-natural beauty product and heart-healthy oil for cooking and baking (and even for whipping up creamy lattes). Then, news started spreading that everyone's favorite healthy fat may not be so healthy after all. In a review of 21 studies published in Nutrition Review in January, researchers concluded that there's no evidence the popular oil—which is 92% saturated fat—can improve your cholesterol or reduce your risk of heart disease. Or, as Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explained to us in a previous interview, “there’s really no direct evidence that coconut oil is a healthy fat.”
If you enjoy the taste of coconut oil, experts say it’s still fine to cook with in moderation, although olive or canola oil may be a healthier choice. (But you can still feel free to slather it on your skin and hair!)
Theranos crashes and burns
Elizabeth Holmes founded the start-up Theranos in 2003 at age 19 with a big goal: change the world through a radical new blood-testing technology. Instead of using intravenous needles, Holmes’s equipment claimed to require just a finger pinprick to test a patient’s blood for diseases. By 2014, the profiles of both Theranos and its founder had grown exponentially: the company boasted 500 employees and a $9 billion valuation by investors (Holmes, who owned half the shares, had an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion).
That all came crashing down this summer, when a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed the company wasn’t using its own technology to perform 225 of the 240 tests it offered, instead relying on competitor equipment. By June, FORBES estimated that Holmes’s net worth had dropped to $0; by October, 43% of the company had been laid off.
Homeopathic teething tablets get the boot
Many parents rely on homeopathic teething tablets and gels to help soothe fussy teething babies. The tablets, which contain an herb called belladonna, are sold at CVS, Hyland’s, and various websites. But caregivers across the country were tossing out these products after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning in October specifically about Hyland’s homeopathic teething tablets, explaining that belladonna can be seriously dangerous in large doses. The FDA is investigating reports of children who experienced seizures after being given tablets that contained the herb.
Ovarian cancer screening tests deemed unreliable
Many people were shocked when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a statement in September against screening tests for ovarian cancer, calling them unreliable and saying they shouldn’t be used. “Despite extensive research and published studies, there are currently no screening tests for ovarian cancer that are sensitive enough to reliably screen for ovarian cancer without a high number of inaccurate results,” read a statement published on the FDA’s website.
The new recommendations are a response to companies that claim their products are able to accurately screen and diagnose ovarian cancer. Despite these claims, women can receive inaccurate results from such tests—testing positive even if they do not have cancer, or receiving a negative result if they do. Instead of relying on such products, the FDA recommends talking to your doctor about how you can reduce your risk of the disease, especially if there’s a family history.
The Zika virus epidemic sparks fear globally
The Zika virus dominated headlines in 2016. The mosquito-borne illness, which can be sexually transmitted, causes the severe birth defect microcephaly and may be linked to other problems, such as miscarriage, lower fertility in men, or arm and leg deformities in newborns.
With the 2016 Olympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—the country that was the epicenter of the epidemic—many people feared that an influx of visitors would trigger a global spread of the illness. (Some Olympic athletes, such as top golfer Rory McIlroy, opted not to attend the games to avoid risk of infection.)
There is some good news, though: In November, the World Health Organization said Zika was no longer a global health emergency. Plus, researchers working on developing a Zika vaccine have seen some promising results. In November, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it was launching the first of five clinical trials in humans to test a vaccine.
Donald Trump elected President of the United States
Regardless of how you feel about the results of the 2016 election, one thing is certain: the Trump/Pence administration will likely usher in big changes for healthcare, and especially for women’s health. The president-elect and his running mate campaigned on promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If this happens, many women could lose access to free preventative services like annual ob-gyn visits and mammograms, as well as guaranteed coverage for a preexisting condition.
After the election results came in, social media was flooded with women saying they were going to get an IUD—one of the most effective ways to prevent pregnancy—before the inauguration to “outlast Trump.” This may sound a bit extreme, but if you were already thinking about getting an IUD, it might not be a bad idea, according to San Francisco-based ob-gyn Jennifer Gunter, MD, who spoke to Health two days after the election. If the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate were to be repealed (something Pence told a talk show host he and Trump planned to do), employers would no longer be required to cover contraception in their insurance plans. And if that happened, “for women who do want IUDs, that could mean spending $600 to $1,000 out of pocket,” Dr. Gunter said.