Last Thursday, NBC News published a story by Brandy Zadrozny titled “‘Magic dirt’: How the internet fueled, and defeated, the pandemic’s weirdest MLM“. The story was about something called “BOO”, which stands for Black Oxygen Organics, a company and product that over the last several months had become a hit among believers in alternative medicine as a miracle treatment for COVID-19. I debated about writing about BOO because the story seemed almost too unbelievable for even me, but then I considered the simple fact that antivaxxers had been using a form of bleach solution, known as Miracle Mineral Supplement (MMS, also sometimes called Miracle Mineral Solution) to treat autism and lots of other conditions for years and years (or, as I put it, bleaching away what ails you) and I had been writing about it. (Unsurprisingly, MMS is also now billed as a treatment for COVID-19, as I’ll touch on later.)
But what is BOO? In brief, it’s mud, dirt, peat bog, or whatever you want to call it, as Zadrozny explains:
The social media posts started in May: photos and videos of smiling people, mostly women, drinking Mason jars of black liquid, slathering black paste on their faces and feet, or dipping babies and dogs in tubs of the black water. They tagged the posts #BOO and linked to a website that sold a product called Black Oxygen Organics.
Black Oxygen Organics, or “BOO” for short, is difficult to classify. It was marketed as fulvic acid, a compound derived from decayed plants, that was dug up from an Ontario peat bog. The website of the Canadian company that sold it billed it as “the end product and smallest particle of the decomposition of ancient, organic matter.”
Put more simply, the product is dirt — four-and-a-half ounces of it, sealed in a sleek black plastic baggie and sold for $110 plus shipping. Visitors to the Black Oxygen Organics website, recently taken offline, were greeted with a pair of white hands cradling cups of dirt like an offering. “A gift from the Ground,” it reads. “Drink it. Wear it. Bathe in it.”
BOO, which “can be taken by anyone at any age, as well as animals,” according to the company, claims many benefits and uses, including improved brain function and heart health, and ridding the body of so-called toxins that include heavy metals, pesticides and parasites.
Unsurprisingly, Black Oxygen Organics has a magical mystical origin story for its products:
CEO and Formulator, Marc Saint-Onge, made an exhaustive search in Canada analyzing 63 peat bogs across Ontario and Quebec. Years of testing and evaluating led to the discovery of a living source with one of the highest levels of fulvic acid in the world.
Black Oxygen Organics owns the sole extraction rights to one of the richest living sources of fulvic minerals in the world, an uncontaminated, fulvic acid-rich peat bog in the Ottawa Valley in Ontario, Canada.
Black Oxygen Organics developed and owns the proprietary harvesting methods and controls every aspect of manufacturing from start to finish. No outside influences and no middle formulator means we can provide a better product at a better price and be more generous with our rewards plan.
Today, Black Oxygen Organics sustainably harvests from one of the richest peat bogs on the planet, not far from Marc’s home in Ottawa.
I do love a good peaty single malt scotch, but this is ridiculous. As for Marc Saint-Onge, he describes himself as a “orthotherapist, naturopath, kinesitherapist, reiki master, holistic practitioner, herbalist and aromatherapist,” in other words, a practitioner of several forms of total quackery. Beyond the quackiness of Saint-Onge himself, there’s also a Quack Miranda Warning on the website—”BlackOxygen products are to be used as supplementary products and are neither designed nor should be marketed as having the ability to prevent, cure, treat or cure human disease, including COVID-19″—which should tell you all you need to know about the claims for BOO. However, I’ll cut to the chase (unusual for me, I know!) before going into the history. In September, Health Canada announced a recall of Black Oxygen Organics tablets and powders, citing potential health risks and promotion of the products in ways that had not been evaluated or authorized. On Friday last week, the FDA followed suit around the same time that the company announced that it was closing up shop as it was faced with a class action lawsuit by Georgia residents over, hilariously…well, I’ll just let NBC News story tell the tale:
Growing concern among BOO sellers about the product — precipitated by an anti-MLM activist who noticed on Google Earth that the bog that sourced BOO’s peat appeared to share a border with a landfill — pushed several to take matters into their own hands, sending bags of BOO to labs for testing.
The results of three of these tests, viewed by NBC News and confirmed as seemingly reliable by two soil scientists at U.S. universities, again showed elevated levels of lead and arsenic.
Those results are the backbone of a federal lawsuit seeking class action status filed in November in Georgia’s Northern District court. The complaint, filed on behalf of four Georgia residents who purchased BOO, claims that the company negligently sold a product with “dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals,” which led to physical and economic harm.
Assuming the company-provided analysis was correct, two of the scientists confirmed that just two servings of BOO exceeded Health Canada’s daily limits for lead, and three servings — a dose recommended on the package — approached daily arsenic limits. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no comparable daily guidelines.
Holy traditional Chinese medicine herbal remedies, Batman! It does puzzle me how those so committed to “natural” remedies can be so fond of treatments that have at times poisoned people because they contain unsafe levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. There’s something that’s actually rather poetic, though, about a “miracle dirt” that’s billed as a cure for everything that ails you, including COVID-19, actually coming from a peat bog (Moose Creek Bog in Ontario) that abuts a landfill. I view this observation as a metaphor for so much of alternative medicine.
But let’s go back to how BOO got to this point, first by examining the claims for BOO made by the company.
The “science” of BOO
So what is fulvic acid anyway, and what does it do? This is its chemical structure, for those of you with a chemistry background:
As those among you with organic chemistry backgrounds can see, it’s a polyphenolic acid. There are, of course, more than one kind of fulvic acid, as it can polymerize, but there’s no need to go into a lot of detail. I can’t help but mention this aspect of fulvic acid and similar compounds described in a recent study published by the Royal Society of Chemistry by a group of scientists in China:
Humic substances (HS) are redox-active organic compounds that constitute a major fraction of natural organic matter in soils. The electron transfer capacity (ETC) of soil HS is mainly dependent on the type and abundance of redox-active functional groups in their structure. It is unclear whether or not agricultural land-use types can affect the ETC of HS in soils. In the present study, we evaluate the responses of ETCs of soil humic acids (HA) and fulvic acids (FA) to different agricultural land-use types. Our results show that both HA and FA of paddy soil showed the highest ETCs, followed by tomato soil, celery cabbage soil, grapevine soil, and myrica rubra soil, respectively. Agricultural land-use types could affect the transformation and decomposition of HS in soils, and thus further change the intrinsic chemical structures associated with ETC
So fulvic acids are interesting compounds that can be important in agriculture, but what about humans? An article written before the pandemic points out that fulvic acids have been touted to treat:
- Hay fever.
- Eczema (atopic dermatitis).
- Alzheimer disease.
- Lead toxicity.
- Infection of the airways.
I also searched this site to see how many times I’ve mentioned fulvic acid over the years. I came up with only twice, once because it was part of zeolite quackery (apparently Zeolite contains fulvic acid) and another time as part of a “detox” regimen for COVID-19 vaccines.
Perusing Facebook, I found other claims:
And of course fulvic acid can “detox” glyphosate:
There are also a number of private groups proclaiming fulvic acid to be a cure-all.
In any event, as the article from WebMD noted, there is no good evidence that fulvic acid does anything for any of the listed conditions. Not that that stopped BOO from selling its bog woo. Perusing the archived website of Black Oxygen Organics, specifically the Science section, I was struck by how much the rationale for BOO resembles homeopathy:
Fulvic acid is the end product and smallest particle of the decomposition of ancient, organic matter. Organic matter is just a fancy way of saying peat bog.
When extracted, purified and delivered in a liquid supplement form, it carries all the nutritional information, anti-oxidant capacity and genetic coding of everything in that decomposed matter. We know the fundamental building blocks of our bodies are the same as other organisms so it only makes sense to nourish your body with what it is made of, optimizing regeneration and repair.
See the homeopathy vibe? It’s as though the fulvic acid from the decomposing matter in the peat bog retains a memory of all the “nutritional information, anti-oxidant capacity and genetic coding” of everything that produced it. That’s not unlike the idea behind homeopathy that the water used to dilute the original compounds used for homeopathic remedies retains a “memory” of the remedy. Still, this is not homeopathy, and I’m not claiming that it is. I’m just pointing out how similar themes keep resonating through all of alternative medicine. One of these is the Law of Contagion, which suggests that once two things have come in contact they retain “memories” or “influences” from each other.
Other influences include “detoxification” in the form chelation of heavy metals, as a naturopath named Frank Stubenvoll, billed as also a “specialist and certified teacher in the field of mitochondria therapy and Kirlian diagnosis”. His paper making this claim is truly a masterpiece of pseudoscience, as Kirlian diagnosis was used. If you don’t remember or don’t know what that is, Kirlian diagnosis involves doing something called Kirlian photography, which is basically a photographic technique that supposedly shows a person’s “energy” or “aura.” As described on Quackwatch, during this procedure, the object (e.g., a person’s hand) is placed on a photographic emulsion within an apparatus that generates a high-voltage (15,000 to 100,000 volts), low-amperage (so that it’s not dangerous), high-frequency electric current. The resulting photo shows a fuzzy glow surrounding the outline of the object. As Stephen Barrett noted:
Proponents correlate these patterns with acupuncture meridians and claim that “auric” qualities reveal changes in health and emotional state. Kirlian photography has also been claimed useful for demonstrating changes before and after chiropractic spinal manipulation. However, scientific investigators have shown that Kirlian effects depend on physical factors that are well understood.
Kirlian photography is alleged to detect all types of disease (even before physical signs appear) and emotional states. Many “energy healers,” “clairvoyants,” and other occult practitioners still rely on it today. “Supernaturally gifted” people are claimed to generate unusually dramatic photos. However, scientific investigation has found that the outcome depends on the type of film, the voltage, the skin resistance (which can be affected by perspiration and the amount of pressure of the finger on the film), how well the subject is electrically grounded, the humidity of the room, the exposure time, the photographic development time, and even the order of the photograph in a series [3,4].
Now there’s a rousing endorsement of fulvic acid and BOO as “chelation” therapy of the heavy metals that you’ll absorb from the BOO mud itself.
Then, of course, BOO claims that its peat bog-derived products have “antioxidant” properties, using with a heaping helping of bizarre chemistry to justify the claims:
Due to its nanite size, fulvic acid moves easily into cells, including crossing the blood brain barrier. It bonds to nutrients, carrying up to sixty times its molecular weight in nutrition into the cell.
The biochemist in me from my time as a chemistry major, graduate student, and medical student keep asking, how on earth does this work? What does this even mean?
Free radicals are toxic by-products that cause significant cellular damage. Each cell in your body can be hit by up to 10,000 free radicals per day and they need to be neutralized in order to not ravage living cells and tissue. To be neutralized each free radical needs a donor electron.
One molecule of fulvic acid can donate fourteen tera-trillion electrons. That’s twenty-one zeros! It has the unique ability to react with both negatively and positively charged unpaired electrons, rendering free radicals harmless. It then alters the mineral to new useable compounds or eliminates them as waste.
It is, of course, true that free radicals can do this, but what are free radicals? In brief, a free radical is an atom, molecule, or ion that has at least one unpaired valence electron. In the vast majority of cases of free radicals, these unpaired electrons make the radical highly chemically reactive, which is why they can oxidize surrounding molecules by “grabbing” elections from them. Often those molecules contain oxygen, which is why free radicals can produce something called “reactive oxygen species,” commonly abbreviated ROS. (I realize that’s simple, but hopefully not simplistic.) Here’s a diagram:
Basically, there is a balance between free radicals, which are used by the body in a number of processes, such as the immune system destroying bacteria and pathogens, and antioxidant systems. When that balance is disrupted in favor of oxidants like free radicals, that’s called oxidative stress, and ROS can lead to damage to surrounding proteins, lipids, DNA molecules, etc.
Once again, the biochemist in me wondered a couple of things. First, nobody in science uses a term like “tera-trillion”, which, I assume, came from combining the SI prefix “tera” (1012) with trillion (109) to come up with 1021; so why did BOO use it? The obvious answer, of course, is this: It sounds way more impressive than zetta, which is the correct SI prefix to use to denote 1021. Second, and more importantly, I wondered: How could a single molecule of fulvic acid could donate 14 x 1021 electrons? This was coming across to me as chemical babble, a term I like to use based on a famous term from Star Trek known as “technobabble”, which is a term that what writers and fans use to denote very impressive scientific-sounding verbiage used in the show that actually doesn’t mean anything. After all, a mole of anything is 6.023 X 1023, which means, apparently, that a single molecule of fulvic acid can donate 1/100 of a mole of electrons. Perhaps my chemistry is rusty, but the entire idea seems ludicrous. Even if you assume that a single molecule of fulvic acid could continually donate these electrons over time, then why can’t it do so indefinitely?
Pseudoscience aside, until last Friday, Black Oxygen Organics marketed several products, including BlackOxygen Tabs, claimed to contain 1.80 g of pure BlackOxygen Fulvic, and BlackOxygen Powder, claimed to be “pure fulvic” with a recommended dose of 2.5 g orally, 25 g in a bath, and 2.5 g (with baking soda) for a mask. The company even marketed BlackOxygen Coffee, because there’s nothing I like more than making a “cup of mud” into a literal description of my coffee.
But what about COVID19?
BOO and COVID-19
So we know that fulvic acid has been promoted by alternative medicine practitioners for a long time as the “natural cure” (for almost everything) coming from peat bogs that “they” don’t want you to know about. So how did we get to COVID-19? If there’s one overriding principle of alternative medicine quackery, it’s that remedies that “work” for some things will almost always be trotted out to treat any new disease that comes along, and, boy, did COVID-19 come along in a big way, which brings us back to Zadrozny:
By the end of the summer, online ads for BOO had made their way to millions of people within the internet subcultures that embrace fringe supplements, including the mixed martial arts community, anti-vaccine and Covid-denier groups, and finally more general alternative health and fake cure spaces.
And people seemed to be buying; parts of TikTok and Instagram were flooded with #BOO posts. The businessman behind Black Oxygen Organics has been selling mud in various forms for 25 years now, but BOO sold in amounts that surprised even its own executives, according to videos of company meetings viewed by NBC News.
The stars appeared aligned for it. A pandemic marked by unprecedented and politicized misinformation has spurred a revival in wonder cures. Well-connected Facebook groups of alternative health seekers and vaccine skeptics provided an audience and eager customer base for a new kind of medicine show. And the too-good-to-be-true testimonials posted to social media attracted a wave of direct sellers, many of them women dipping their toes into the often unprofitable world of multilevel marketing for the first time.
But what kind of science was being used to justify this claim? Here’s one example:
The claim is that humic acids, including fulvic acid, are antiviral. It’s based on cherry picked and misinterpreted science, including in vitro studies supposedly showing humic acids to be “be effective in vitro against a wide range of viruses, including influenza, HSV, HIV, and others”. None of the studies cited are more recent than 1992 (one is from the early 1970s), and none are human studies, although there is one study cited that looked at HSV-1 in rabbits in which humic acids were used the conjunctival sac of the eye along with or immediately after the infectious agent. That last one is obviously a highly artificial study, particularly if topical humic acid is used right after a virus is applied. The link cited goes to a “clinical education” website for “nutritional information” aimed at chiropractors, acupuncturists, etc.
The NBC News report lists other testimonials used to sell the product:
“Who would have thought drinking dirt would make me feel so so good?” one person in a 27,000-member private Facebook group posted, her face nuzzling a jar of black liquid.
Another user posted a photo of a baby sitting in a bathtub of water colored a deep caramel. In the caption, she shared that the baby had contracted hand, foot and mouth disease — a virus that mainly affects children and causes painful sores. “Tiny is enjoying his Boo bath!” she wrote. “We’re happy to say our bottom feels happier and we’re in a better mood!”
Many such posts are dedicated to tactics for getting kids and loved ones to take BOO.
“Boo brownies for the picky family,” one poster offered.
Testimonials like these make up the majority of posts in dozens of Facebook groups, set up and overseen by BOO sellers, with hundreds of thousands of collective members, where BOO is heralded as a miracle drug. Teams of sellers in these private Facebook groups claim that, beyond cosmetic applications, BOO can cure everything from autism to cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. Conveniently in these times, BOO proponents say it also protects against and treats Covid-19, and can be used to “detox” the newly vaccinated, according to posts viewed by NBC News.
Unsurprisingly, BOO turned out to be a huge MLM scam:
More than 99 percent of MLM sellers lose money, according to the Consumer Awareness Institute, an industry watchdog group. But according to social media posts, BOO’s business was booming. In selfies and videos posted to Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, women lather BOO on their faces and soak their feet in sludge-filled pasta pots while, they claim, the money rolls in.
Black Oxygen Organics’ compensation plan, like most MLMs, is convoluted. According to their company handbook, sellers, called “brand partners,” can earn income in two distinct ways: through retail commissions on bags of BOO they sell, and through recruiting other sellers, from which they earn additional commission and bonuses. The more recruits a seller brings in, the more quickly the seller rises in the ranks — there are 10 titles in the company, from brand partner to director to CEO, with compensation packages growing along the way.
Because, first and foremost, it’s also at least always about the grift; so of course there’s an MLM involved! Indeed, the people running Black Oxygen Organics even knew that they had created a monster and that their sellers had gone too far:
In September, Montaruli, BOO’s vice president, led a corporate call to address the Facebook groups and what he called “the compliance situation.”
“Right now, it’s scary,” Montaruli said in a Zoom call posted publicly, referring to the outlandish claims made by some of BOO’s sellers. “In 21 years, I have never seen anything like this. Never.”
“These outrageous claims, and I’m not even sure if outrageous is bad enough, are obviously attracting the haters, giving them more fuel for the fire, and potential government officials.”
Montaruli called for “a reset,” telling BOO sellers to delete the pages and groups and start over again.
One slide suggested alternatives for 14 popular BOO uses, including switching terms like ADHD to “trouble concentrating,” and “prevents heart attack” to “maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.”
And so in September, the Facebook groups evolved — many went private, most changed their names from BOO to “fulvic acid,” and the pinned testimonials from customers claiming miracle cures were wiped clean, tweaked or edited to add a disclaimer absolving the company from any liability.
Because grifters gonna grift. Always. Also note the way BOO hawkers (like most supplement hawkers) were urged to use the FDA’s limitations under the DSHEA of 1994 to hide behind so-called “structure-function” claims (e.g., “boosts the immune system” or “supports heart health”) to avoid the FDA coming after them for making specific disease claims.
When there is no science, all quackery is possible, including for COVID-19
BOO and fulvic acid quackery for COVID-19 and, before that, pretty much every disease and condition, is yet another reminder that belief often fuses with grift when it comes to medicine that is unscientific, pseudoscientific, or rooted in superstition and prescientific beliefs in medicine tarted up with woo babble (another nod to Star Trek technobabble) to sound scientific. As I say time and time again, there might well be belief that a product does all these miraculous things, but there’s very frequently grift involved as well. Looking again at the example of MMS, which has been touted for cancer, autism, and all manner of diseases and conditions, I can’t help but note that it only took quacks a few weeks after the pandemic hit (if that) to start touting this form of bleach as a treatment for COVID-19. Indeed, Kerri Rivera, who had made such a splash in “autism biomed” circles by advocating giving bleach orally and by enema to autistic children to treat their “vaccine injury,” jumped on the COVID-19 quackery bandwagon. As I myself noted as early as March 2020, COVID-19 has been a golden opportunity for quacks, with blog friend Scott Gavura producing an incomplete list as early as May 2020 that included MMS, colloidal silver, traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, chiropractic, juicing, and several others.
We can now add magic dirt in the form of mud taken from a peat bog next to a landfill to that list. That it’s peat from a bog that distillers of single malt scotch whiskey would reject as not being good enough for their products makes no difference. It’s “natural”, and the pandemic affords all manner of grifting opportunities. That is enough.