How the Internet has fed, and defeated, the strangest franchises in the pandemic

In the past few months, groups have seen a rise in the number of members of the anti-vaccine and Covid denial communities, including prominent activists selling the product to raise money for anti-vaccine efforts.

A profile of a top seller in BOO’s semi-glossy magazine, “The Bog,” indicated that Covid had drawn more people into the industry.

“It was kind of a blessing,” said the seller.

While it has undoubtedly attracted sales and made a difference, Facebook has also created a problem unique to Black Oxygen Organics: These certifications may have violated federal law requiring effectiveness claims backed by “competent, reliable scientific evidence.” It has also attracted attention, not only from customers, but also from health professionals, regulators, and a group of BOO executives who have dubbed it the “haters.”

After a summer of runaway success, the backlash began online.

The rise of MLM online has led to criticism from some people who have created informal activist groups to raise awareness of what they say are the predatory practices of MLM companies and to organize campaigns to disrupt certain businesses. Many groups use the same social media techniques to organize their responses.

Online activists opposed to MLM and Stakes have formed groups on Facebook targeting BOO for its allegations. Members of these groups infiltrated the BOO community, signed up as sellers, joined pro-BOO groups, attended BOO sales meetings, and then reported to the group what they saw. They have posted videos of company meetings and footage from private BOO sales groups and urged members to file formal complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration.

YouTube creators have made videos rebutting the allegations of BOO street vendors, mocking BOO executives and public recordings of private company meetings.

Manchester wax.Courtesy of Ceara Manchester

Ceara Manchester, a housewife mom in Pompano Beach, Florida, helps run one of Facebook’s largest anti-BOO groups, “Boo is Woo.” Manchester, 34, has spent the past four years monitoring predatory MLM – or “cults” in her view – and posting to multiple accounts and social media groups dedicated to “exposing” Black Oxygen Organics.

“The health claims, I’ve never seen them this bad before,” Manchester said. “Just the sheer amount. Every post was like, ‘Cancer, Covid, diabetes, autism.'”

“I don’t feel like people are stupid,” Manchester said of people who have bought or even sold BOO. “I think they’re desperate or weak, or they’ve been preyed upon, and you ask someone to say, ‘Hey, I have this product that cures it all. “You know when you’re desperate that’s how you might listen.”

addict

Black Oxygen Organics is the brainchild of Marc Saint-Onge, a 59-year-old entrepreneur from Castleman, Ontario. Saint-Onge, founder and CEO of BOO, did not respond to calls, texts, emails or direct messages.

But decades of interviews in the local press and more recently on social media provide some details about Saint-Onge, or as he likes to call it, “Mudman”.

Saint-Onge describes himself as an osteopath, naturopath, kinesiologist, Reiki expert, holistic practitioner, herbalist and aromatherapist. As he said in a YouTube video that has since gone private, his love for mud started as a child, chasing frogs around the swamps of Ontario. Years later, he went on to practice orthodontic therapy, a type of advanced massage technique, to treat the pain. He said he packed dirt from a local swamp, including twigs and leaves, into zip-top bags and gave it to his “patients,” who demanded the mud faster than he could sweep it away.

San Aung said Canadian authorities charged him with practicing medicine without a license in 1989 and fined him $20,000.

“And then my clinic went underground,” he said in a recent podcast.

He’s sold clay in some form since the early ’90s. Health Canada, the government regulator responsible for public health, forced him to recall an early version of his clay product, then rename it “Anti-Rheuma Bath,” according to a 1996 article in The Calgary Herald, because Saint-Onge marketed it. For the treatment of arthritis and rheumatism without any evidence to substantiate the claims. Sun Ong has also claimed that his clay can heal wounds, telling an Ottawa Citizen reporter in 2012 that his clay compress healed the leg of a man who had an accident with an electric saw, saving it from amputation.

“The doctor said it’s the antibiotics,” he said. “But we think it was mud.”

In the 1990s Saint-Onge began selling his mud bath under the “Golden Moor” brand, which he did until he realized a dream, “a way to do a secret little extraction,” as he puts it, that would make the dirt dissolve in the water. In 2015, with the founding of his company NuWTR, which later turned into Black Oxygen Organics, Saint-Onge said he had finally invented dirt that people could drink.

In 2016, he began selling himself as a business coach, and his personal website boasted of its value: “I sell clay in a bottle,” he wrote. “Let me teach you to sell anything.”

problems

In September, BOO Vice President Montaroli led a joint call to address Facebook groups and what he called a “state of compliance.”

“Right now, it’s scary,” Montaroli said in a publicly posted Zoom call, referring to outlandish claims made by some BOO sellers. “In 21 years, I’ve never seen anything like this before. Never.”

“These outrageous allegations, and I’m not sure outrageous is bad enough, obviously attract haters, give them more fuel to start the fire, and potential government officials.”

Montaroli called for a “reset,” telling BOO sellers to delete pages and groups and start over.

One slide suggested alternatives to 14 common uses of BOO, including switching terms like ADHD to “trouble concentrating” and “heart attack prevention” in order to “maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.”

Screenshot of a Facebook post about dirt Black Oxygen Organics.
A common strategy for MLM participants, including BOO sellers, is to create Facebook groups to collaborate and attract new customers.Obtained by NBC News

And so in September, Facebook groups evolved — many went private, most changed their name from BOO to “fulvic acid,” verified testimonials from customers claiming miracle cures were cleaned, tweaked or modified to add a disclaimer absolving the company of any liability .

But this was not the end of the company’s problems. While individual sellers have been navigating the new compliance zone, regulatory agencies have taken strict action.

Days after Montaroli’s call, Health Canada announced the recall of Black Oxygen Organics tablets and powders, citing “the potential health risks that may be higher for children, adolescents and pregnant or breastfeeding women.” Furthermore, the regulatory agency noted, “Products are promoted in ways and for uses that have not been evaluated and authorized by Health Canada.”

“Stop taking these products,” the ad advised.

It was already difficult to get stock for American customers. In private groups, sellers claimed the product sold out, but on the company-wide call, Montaroli confirmed that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is holding their products at the border.

Jeremy Kahn, a spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration, declined to comment. One day after this article was published, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning against taking BOO. In the public notice, the Food and Drug Administration said it was seeking a recall when the company closed.

Saint-Onge did not respond to requests for comment from NBC News. Telephone messages and emails sent by a reporter to the Company, its executives, and its legal counsel have not been returned.

What’s in a BOO?

BOO isn’t the only dirt-like health supplement on the market. Consumers have a choice of dozens of products — in the form of drops, tablets, powders and pastes — that claim to provide the therapeutic power of fulvic and humic acid.

Humic and fulvic acids have been used in traditional and folk medicines for centuries, and they show antibacterial qualities in large quantities. But there is little scientific evidence to support the kinds of claims made by BOO sellers, according to Brian Bennett, a physics professor at Marquette University who has studied fulvic acid and humic acid as a biochemist.

“I would say it’s snake oil,” Bennett said. “There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that pharmaceuticals based on the properties of this substance may actually work, but I think eating a handful of soil probably doesn’t work.”

Beyond questions regarding the health benefits of fulvic acid, there is the question of what is in the Black Oxygen Organics product.

The company’s latest Certificate of Analysis, a document intended to show what the product is and in what quantities, was published by sellers this year. Reporting the product formula as mostly fulvic acid and vitamin C, the report comes from 2017 and doesn’t list a lab, or even a specific test. NBC News spoke to six environmental scientists, each of whom expressed skepticism about the quality of the BOO certification.

Assuming the company’s analysis was correct, two scientists confirmed that only two servings of BOO exceeded Health Canada’s daily limits for lead, and three servings—the recommended dose on the package—closed to the daily arsenic limits. The FDA does not have comparable daily guidelines.

In an effort to verify BOO’s analysis, NBC News bought a bag and sent it to Nicholas Basta, a professor of soil and environmental sciences at Ohio State University.

The BOO product was analyzed for the presence of heavy metals at the Trace Element Research Laboratory in Ohio. The results of this test were similar to the company’s 2017 testimonial, in which two doses per day were found to exceed Health Canada’s limit for lead, and three doses for daily arsenic amounts.

Growing concern among BOO sellers about the product — prompted by an MLM activist who noted on Google Earth that the bog that got BOO peat appeared to share a border with a landfill — prompted many of them to take matters into their own hands, sending bags of BOO to labs for testing.

The results of three of those tests, seen by NBC News and confirmed as apparently reliable by two soil scientists at US universities, showed elevated levels of lead and arsenic.

These findings are the backbone of a federal lawsuit seeking class action status filed in November in Northern District Court in Georgia. The complaint, filed on behalf of four Georgia residents who bought BOO, alleges that the company negligently sold a product that contained “dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals,” resulting in physical and economic damage.

Black Oxygen Organics did not respond to requests for comment on the complaint.