How a Wellness MLM Brand Spawned a ‘Parasite’ Detox Trend

Black Oxygen Organics promised that its products would cleanse users of toxins. Sellers took claims to the extreme. Then it all came crashing down.

Dec 9 2021, 5:43pm

“It’s awkward to be sitting in here with parasites moving around you, but I know that my body needs this,” says Jessica Harwood. 

It’s a Tuesday night in June, and the 43-year-old yoga teacher and energy healer is filming her first bath with Black Oxygen Organics powder mixed into the tub. The water she’s sitting in is murky, opaque enough that the only thing the camera shows when aimed at the surface is the reflection of her bathroom ceiling. She points out a few white specks floating around her as she soaks. “I’m just overwhelmed and disgusted,” she says. “The only way we can get rid of these is through our biggest organ, which is our skin.”

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On a recommendation from a holistically inclined friend in her New Hampshire town, Harwood joined a wave of North American wellness seekers flocking to Black Oxygen Organics. The multi-level marketing company was dedicated to the scientifically questionable therapeutic use of fulvic acids, a family of organic compounds found in soil, with products like loose powder, tablets, and even coffee pods. Black Oxygen Organics—cheekily called “BOO” by sellers and customers—had been on a hot streak since late spring, with as many as 20,000 “brand partners” signing on to sell the dietary dirt. The brand partners, many of them young white women, flooded social media platforms with photos and videos demonstrating the product’s seemingly infinite uses. They turned BOO into face masks. They blended BOO in their morning smoothies. They gave it to children, to pets, and to friends who could help sell more BOO.

In the social media era, the world of multi-level marketing (MLMs)—companies using commission-based independent sales reps to hawk their products and recruit more reps through personal relationships—has rocketed to explosive growth, and what was once congenial has grown tribal. The prim and lowkey Tupperware parties and Mary Kay hobbyists of the 1960s have given way to a more fanatical set of retail devotees, preaching the life-changing magic of essential oils, natural skincare, and dietary powders on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok.

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But with great growth has come a backlash. Most famously, the wildly popular clothing company LuLaRoe, accused by prosecutors of being a pyramid scheme, was busted open by the 2021 Amazon Prime series LuLaRich for exploiting stay-at-home moms who found themselves in debt after signing up as sellers. MLM sellers are ridiculed online as “huns” for their overeager attempts to push products and recruit other reps for a cut by spamming friends, family, and distant acquaintances with emoji-dense solicitations. A growing army of MLM-savvy activists now research and shine a light on shady business practices. And the particular recklessness of Black Oxygen Organics made it an obvious target for them to take down, leading to the booming company’s stunning closure two days before Thanksgiving. 

The financial commitment required to become a Black Oxygen Organics brand partner was much smaller than it is for most other MLMs (during most of LuLaRoe’s prime, the mandatory “buy-in” was around $5,000): A prospective partner was only required to have  purchased from another brand partner before ($110 will get you 125 grams of powder or a pack of 60 capsules). BOO wasn’t the first MLM to promise a product’s holistic health benefits or cure-all detoxing, cleansing, or any other synonym for sweating and shitting out undesired substances. But even in the world of over-the-top wellness promises, BOO brand partners stood apart for promoting the belief that everyone needed to be detoxed of living parasites.  

BOO users posted photos of what they believed to be parasites on social media

Testimonies from users praising BOO’s ability to flush them of parasites and other toxins, either through toilet-based elimination or body and foot baths, abounded on social media. “Every time I would touch it, it would start moving,” Harwood told me over the phone of one of the specks she’d investigated after her first BOO bath. “I was like, Oh my god, this is coming out of me. I can't—I had all these emotions coming out. Like, I can't believe I've been poisoned. I can't believe this is in my food. This is in my water.” They came, she believes, from all around her: “in our food, in our water, from nanotechnology and our medicines and our vaccines.” 

On popular BOO pages, anything could be attributed to a parasitic presence. “Do your kids act crazy around the full moon phase?” one group’s admin wrote. “Chances are they have parasites. If it freaks you out…flush and walk away but don’t be ok with them staying in you and your family members.” Below, she shared a photo, which she claimed was sent by a friend, of a mucousy, twig-like brown glob on a paper towel, an inch or so long.

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Oddly enough, among the parasite posts, almost no two purported invaders look alike—some were dark, some anemic, some were thin, some globular. There was never a clear consensus on how these so-called parasites had gotten into the body—just that BOO would flush them out.

“Those are NOT parasites,” John David, the Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Tropical Public Health at Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in an email to VICE after reviewing close to a dozen of the posts. “They are obviously crazy people.”

Even within the often-pseudoscientific wellness space, the claims made by BOO’s brand partners seemed extreme. The most common claims included that just a bit of BOO in a morning glass of water, rendering it inky and opaque, could improve gut health, boost immunity, minimize pain, help with nutrient absorption, detox undesirable substances from the body, and much more. In Facebook groups and Instagram pages, where personal testimonials from BOO users poured in, people claimed that BOO has calmed their diabetes, cleansed them of trauma, prevented COVID, and cured autism. And, of course, rid them of parasites.

“The first thing that came to mind when I saw the pictures was the term delusional parasitosis,” said Luciano Kapelusznik, an infectious disease specialist at Bryn Mawr Hospital. “People will come in and they are truly convinced that they have, you know, parasites, worms, crawling under the skin. And they come with little bags and slides and things that they’ve picked off their skin, and it looks just like these pictures.”

Brand partners pushed the idea that parasite infection was widespread

With the parasite posts gaining in engagement, it wasn’t long before Black Oxygen Organics began to attract the attention of a group of online activists who investigate and expose the problematic business practices of some MLMs. Some, like Roberta Blevins, a 40-year-old ex-LuLaRoe rep who was featured in LuLaRich, have been burned by their involvement in MLMS. Others, like Ceara Manchester, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mother who often spends hours a day investigating brands, have watched loved ones get chewed up by the companies. They post videos about growing MLMS, share memes about huns, and do deep dives into companies’ payment structures, business practices, and, in some cases, the products themselves.

“I’ve never seen a company this bad, especially not one that was getting really popular,” said Manchester, who has run a page dedicated to spreading awareness about dangerous MLM practices for nearly five years and said she has looked into nearly 600 MLMs. Black Oxygen Organics was a rare combination of a potentially harmful product and the type of sleek branding usually reserved for larger companies (retired UFC star Pat Miletich cut an endorsement video for the brand). “The only times I’ve ever really seen claims that were like a miracle cure, a fountain of youth, you’re usually seeing scammy ads, and then the company’s just gone, it never gets big, you never really hear about it again. It’s people taking your money and running with it,” said Manchester. “These people were making claims like that.” 

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By late summer, Manchester had assembled a Facebook group called BOO is WOO, dedicated to monitoring the company’s activity and organizing a series of formal complaints to be filed en masse with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On November 19, a group of former customers filed a class-action suit against the company, its founder and CEO Marc Saint-Onge, and its president Carlo Garibaldi, alleging that the company’s products, which purportedly helped detox the body, actually “contain unsafe levels of toxic heavy metals that render them unsafe and unfit for their intended use.”

In a statement released by BOO shortly before closing, the company wrote that “BlackOxygen is confident that it will prevail by presenting the true facts about BlackOxygen products and by proving that the allegations in the lawsuit are false and malicious.”

Saint-Onge, a square-headed embodiment of a Toronto accent dressed in Shark Tank chic, calls himself “the Mud Man.” As he has told it in interviews over the last decade, his life’s work began in the early 90s, when Saint-Onge, a Canadian orthotherapist (a massage therapist with kinesiological flair), discovered the healing powers of soft black mud, sourced from nearby peat bogs and heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, at a German spa. It was a special mud, Saint-Onge has said, full of decomposed plant matter that gave it “immeasurable healing properties.” He told a local Ottawa broadcaster in 2012, “I saw people in wheelchairs and crutches walking out after two, three hours of being in this mud.”

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In his mission to bring this wonder cure to the people of the Great White North, Saint-Onge claimed that he undertook an investigation of 63 different bogs across Canada to identify the one richest in fulvic acid, settling on the Moose Creek bog in Casselman, Ontario, which just happened to be located less than 40 minutes from his house. When he first acquired the rights to extract from the bog in 1994, Saint-Onge immediately opened up a company called Golden Moor and sold his first bog-soil health product. After selling the company in 2013, he continued building nearly identical rebrands, including a short-lived company in 2018 called NuWTR, spawning a web of interrelated companies with fuzzy business histories and shifting professional identities. 

Mentions of the name “Black Oxygen Organics,” including a website, first appeared around 2015, but the exact date of its founding is unclear. NuWTR and Black Oxygen Organics coexisted for a brief period, and it was Black Oxygen Organics that took off first. Golden Moor’s LinkedIn page lists a Marc Moor as the founder, rather than Marc Saint-Onge, though both Marcs have identical credentials. Saint-Onge’s LinkedIn profile no longer mentions the company or NuWTR by name, and instead shows him as the founder and CEO of “Oxygen Coaching & sales.” 

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Similarly, BOO president Carlo Garibaldi, who boasted an entrepreneurial history on the now-defunct company website, doesn’t appear to have shared the name of a single other company he’s worked for online. Outside of his connection to BOO, the man is a digital ghost. Anti-BOO activists are quick to point to two 20-year-old news articles detailing a drug-smuggling conviction (first dropped, later reinstated) of a Toronto man named Emilio Carlo Garibaldi. Though there was no definitive proof that the two Toronto men are the same, the age in the articles lines up with that of Garibaldi. Saint-Onge does claim a rap sheet. He has stated in numerous interviews that he once faced legal trouble for “practicing medicine without a license,” though there is no easily traceable evidence suggesting any such charge was ever leveled at him. (Saint-Onge did not respond to two emails asking for comment and to be connected with Garibaldi.)

On the Black Oxygen Organics website, Saint-Onge and Garibaldi heralded 14 health benefits for their products. Claims included that BOO acts as an “antioxidant source that protects cell [sic] against free radicals,” that it “supports biological functions” across organ systems, and that it reduces oxidative stress, allowing for higher oxygen uptake throughout the body. 

Bath and foot soaks were said to help detox “parasites”

Working off the BOO marketing materials, brand partners made promises that are nearly ancient—longstanding cultural obsessions with the detoxification, purity, and cleanliness of mind and body. The “bad” entities people seek to draw out or expel have changed over time—humors, spirits, toxins, parasites—but the core belief remains the same: Fail to eliminate the bad, and it builds into sickness. These sort of clarifying exercises, from bloodletting to juice cleanses, have a tendency in a purity-obsessed secular culture to take on ritualistic and moral meaning that can give a product like BOO primal appeal regardless of the science. 

Katie Warren, a 23-year-old mother of two and BOO brand partner, said her research on the product felt good because of the people she met. “I agree with them on a lot of different morals,” she said. “It’s not necessarily like I'm putting all my trust in the company, but I trust their opinion of the company and they are completely in love with it.”

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Many BOO users cited the fear of parasites or toxins in their decisions to try the product, and the pandemic may have fueled the brand’s growth among those skeptical of vaccines and pharmaceutical companies. It was an attitude that encouraged adherence to a regime. “It really resonated, you know—everything about it,” Jessica Harwood said of first hearing about the product. “That it was plant matter, that it’s been used forever. It’s decomposed, it’s leaves. It felt honest and pure.” That BOO was dirt was not a red flag—it was an endorsement of its purity.

“People are desperate, I think, to have something wrong with them,” adds Abby Langer, a registered dietician and author who evaluates the science behind fad diets and supplements on her self-titled blog. “People love to feel like they’re being heard, and like they’re part of a group. You have this thing. You didn’t know you had it. But let me tell you the solution, and then I'm going to fix you.”

However, the science behind BOO’s health claims is shaky. BOO was allegedly made of processed peat bog humus, the dark compost-like layer of organic material in soil where fulvic acids are found. Its cousin, an inky, sludgy substance known as shilajit, has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, harvested from mountainside rocks in regions around the Himalayas. Though the specific chemical makeup of humus and shilajit varies depending on the source, most shilajit is composed of roughly 15–20 percent fulvic acid. Research on shilajit has considered its historical medicinal uses—including in the treatment of altitude sickness in the high mountains of East Asia and as an energy booster—by looking at the potential mechanisms of fulvic acid mainly in vitro, watching how it behaves in a lab dish or on rare occasions, in small animals. 

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Meanwhile, studies of humus-derived fulvic acid are abundant—they just have nothing to do with health benefits for humans. Fulvic acid has proven efficacy in fertilizers, and although humans are notably not crops, Black Oxygen Organics and other companies that sell fulvic supplements often twist the details of such findings to boost their claims. Black Oxygen Organics referenced a number of these studies in a 38-page manifesto declaring their product’s scientific legitimacy, but the connections between academic journals and the health claims of the product are loose.

BOO users gave the brand's products to their children, pets, and friends

One citation is a 1972 letter to the editor in the journal Nature Physical Science describing fulvic acid’s ability to break down certain metallic minerals in a laboratory setting. Since brand partners were not officially employees of the company, BOO didn’t need to carefully regulate their health claims. Parasite expulsion, for instance, was never mentioned in company materials, but was later leaned into by leadership on internal calls with brand partners. Like a game of telephone, the vague scientific references on the companies’ website were blown up into scientific certainty once fed through the enthusiasms and minimal research of social media, transmorphing the speculative letter to the editor into a brand partner’s Instagram post celebrating BOO’s ability to cleanse heavy metals from the body.

Langer said that Black Oxygen Organics’ scientific documents were “really similar” to what she usually finds when looking at companies with overblown promises. “The research is really old, it’s really badly done—in this case, it was sponsored by a fulvic earth company. And it was done in some naturopath’s office,” she said. “That’s hardly a gold standard in study methodology.”

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If Black Oxygen Organics had solid scientific standing, she said that while the company was still in business, “They should be doing studies that are peer reviewed and published in a reputable journal. If they really want to make sure that the studies are credible, they will have results that are reproducible. They should be recent, and there should be humans, not just lab dishes or animals.”

More important, she said, there should be stronger regulations for health companies that utilize network marketing. “A lot of MLM companies, it’s like the Wild West, they let their salespeople say whatever the fuck they want to make sales,” she said. 

The ferocity with which BOO came to be a miracle panacea in the eyes of its customers was also emblematic of its multi-level marketing structure. Enthusiasm for a product became a performative and professional requirement. Company philosophy became personal philosophy, and the group dynamics of MLMs encouraged extreme behaviors. “Once I saw a lady literally sniff a line of dirt,” said Meg Priest, an anti-MLM content creator. “‘All right, y’all have lost your minds. You have lost your mind.’”  

That all came crashing down on November 23 with an abrupt company-wide email announcing the immediate closure of Black Oxygen Organics, citing “the recent turn of events.” BOO’s opponents had been laying the groundwork for months, and they hoped that the class-action suit would deal the death blow.  

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In September, the online watchdog groups and anti-MLM creators had collected enough complaints that Health Canada issued a recall of all Black Oxygen Organics products, stating that the product’s claims were “not compliant with its terms of market authorization.” In an email to VICE, a Health Canada spokesperson shared that the company was contacted and requested to halt sales after a series of three public complaints. “Health Canada authorised two natural health products with the brand name “BlackOxygen” (containing fulvic acid as a non-medicinal (inactive) ingredient,” they wrote. “However, the products are being marketed as fulvic acid supplements, implying that fulvic acid is a main component in the product formulation. The high quantity of fulvic acid in these products has not been evaluated, nor authorized, by Health Canada.” The FDA began investigating complaints against the company, and on December 3, following an NBC News story about BOO, issued an advisory discouraging people from using the product. 

In an email to brand partners, Black Oxygen Organics leaders wrote that the recall was simply a matter of mislabeling. “According to FDA and Health Canada guidelines—no company can label a product as BOTH internal and external use,” they wrote. The email contained no mention of any BOO ingredients, and promised a speedy and simple resolution. Insiders at the company say that it’s been nearly two months since any products were shipped.

Immediately following the recall, on September 21, Black Oxygen Organics filed a lawsuit against former brand partner turned anti-BOO activist David Bykowski, alleging defamation and extortion, citing primarily a series of videos he made about his relationship with the company after leaving in early 2021. Within the following weeks, Black Oxygen Organics sent cease and desist letters to at least three people who had been involved in organizing complaints and evidence against the company. 

Brand partners were clamoring for answers about BOO’s makeup, sourcing, and processing. Corporate leadership has all but ignored their questions in large forums, occasionally resharing a certificate of analysis from 2017 that some suspect has been doctored. Suspicious brand partners and advocates have sent samples out for independent testing, and the results, which seem to vary by batch, appear to show high levels of lead and other metals. Some have expressed fears about additional contamination at the source, thanks to a landfill two miles from Moose Creek that was approved in 2019 for an expansion. A 2018 analysis from the Eastern Ontario Waste Handling Facility suggested that the landfill had negatively affected the water quality in a downstream portion of Moose Creek. Some felt duped. “I’m not looking forward to telling all my friends and family,” Harwood wrote to me on Facebook shortly after the class-action lawsuit was filed. “I need to look into a solution to detox heavy metal. Fuckkk.”

The two weeks before the company closed were frenetic, with multiple updates to the company’s lineup of products—first, introducing a much-hyped new lineup that included specialized Vitamin C–enriched cosmetics without BOO’s signature branding, then disappearing those products, replacing them with their original lineup of tablets and powders. The site’s checkout system reportedly stopped processing orders during the same period of time, and since the week before Thanksgiving, brand partners who logged into the site could no longer see information about their bonus payments—many of which are reportedly still unpaid. On the Friday night BOO announced its shutdown, brand partners took to Facebook in a flurry of posts announcing the end of their partnerships with the company. Harwood is among those planning to consult a lawyer. As of the first days of December, the site was no longer functional.  

Still, even as the company fades, some former brand partners are still coming to its defense, claiming, among other things, that unnamed third-party merchants are blocking Saint-Onge’s access to the money he owes brand partners and customers whose orders over the last two months never shipped. At least one woman who worked closely with Saint-Onge has said that he is already working out a new way to sell his product, encouraging loyal users to sit tight. Many brand partners are following the women who recruited them to other MLMs, including multiple that also sell fulvic acid products. For some, the company’s dramatic collapse amid widespread allegations of corporate malfeasance and scams wasn’t an occasion for the scales to fall from their eyes; it was further validation beyond the realm of science and into the supernatural. 

“I was guided to stop using it,” Harwood said. “The reason I stopped taking it is because it felt very dark and dense. This was my gut, my feeling, my personal belief that it is not safe. And I posted this in my group and no one flinched—I said, ‘It feels like there’s human remains in the product.’ I know that sounds crazy. And I know that’s horrible. But that’s what it feels like.”

Haley Weiss is a freelance journalist covering science and health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Scientific American, The Lily, and more.

Tagged:

detox, lawsuit, cleanse, MLMs

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