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The Pandemic Scam That Had Everyone Eating Dirt

Black Oxygen Organics sold soil to customers promising it would was a cure-all for a variety of health conditions. But when the bog mud turned out to be toxic sludge from an area near a landfill, a dedicated group of activists and a former employee teamed up to take the company down

After his humiliating loss to Ted Cruz, the defeated senatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke took a road trip. He drove in the direction of the sunset, and kept driving until he reached New Mexico. There, he attempted to heal his wounded ego by eating local dirt said to have regenerative powers. At the time, O’Rourke was quickly called out in the media. He defended his choice, saying, “Absolutely, as a white man, there is so much privilege built into that. But to the question of whether only Beto O’Rourke could take this road trip… I just knew I needed to do it.” He left out the part about eating dirt.

Certainly, though, O’Rourke isn’t alone in believing that snacking on some soil might cure what ails him. In fact, in recent years, magical dirt had become such a lucrative scam that the Canadian and U.S. governments were forced to shut down a company that sold such dirt at $110 per 4-ounce package. The dirt was black in color, noted for its high concentrations of fulvic acid and humic acid, both of which the company claimed to be good for, well, just about everything. 

The company, Black Oxygen Organics (BOO), harvested its magical dirt from a bog — that much was true — but that bog was located about two miles from a landfill. Customers were not only eating this landfill sludge, they were drinking it, bathing in it, giving it to children and babies and putting it into the feeding tubes of loved ones in vegetative states. BOO continued to grow during the early stages of the pandemic — as more and more people were looking for alternative treatments and wonder cures for COVID-19. But as customers began speaking up, regulators started cracking down and federal lawsuits mounted. And so, by last fall, founder and CEO Marc Saint-Onge ended up having to close his entire magic dirt company down.

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Though the pandemic brought BOO to new heights, the company had been slinging mud for decades. In a 2012 interview with local Canadian news, Saint-Onge explained where he came up with the idea of selling people swamp mud for triple digits. “We were always looking for different products 20 years ago in the spa and wellness industry. It was growing. And we shut down our school, and we traveled to European countries, and that particular year we went to a sanitorium, which we call a spa here, and they were using this black mud called moor.”

The sight of moor got Saint-Onge’s wheels spinning and his mind dreaming of the profits to be made from the new wellness craze he could offer customers. “When I went into this spa and I saw these stainless steel tubs — you actually turn on the tap and this black mud would fall into the tub, heated at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and these people would lay in it.”

He quickly understood, though, that this wasn’t just a beauty treatment: It promised total rejuvenative wellness and miracles of recovery, too. As Saint-Onge recalled, “I saw people in wheelchairs and crutches walking out, two and three hours after being in this mud. So I said, I need this stuff here in Canada. And that’s how it started.”

Lucky for Saint-Onge, there were an abundant number of bogs in Canada that boasted black mud, perfect for his new product line. After examining 63 of them, he settled on Moose Creek bog in Casselman, Ontario. There, close to the source, in an old Victorian house situated on seven acres, he created a spa and started Golden Moor, which soon became Black Oxygen Moor, “a company specializing in the manufacturing of natural health products based on moor mud and fulvic acid.“ 

To make sure he had a constant supply of moor, Saint-Onge negotiated a 25-year extraction rights contract. Then, he and his business partner, Carlo Garibaldi, started packaging and shipping black magic dirt to eager customers. “Black Oxygen Tabs,” a package of 40 tablets, went for $110; “Black Oxygen Powder,” a “multi-purpose use” powder, was priced at $110 for a 125-gram pouch; and “Black Oxygen Coffee,” listed as a “premium Italian Roast infused with fulvic minerals,” ran you $30 for a 12-serving box. 

In her damning exposé of Black Oxygen Organics, NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny examined how the pandemic led to a sudden spike in wonder-medicine multi-level marketing schemes, as sellers took to platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to market their wares. “Participation in MLMs boomed during the pandemic with 7.7 million Americans working for one in 2020, a 13-percent increase over the previous year,” Zadrozny wrote. 

In other words, now Saint-Onge had an army of true believers eager to sell his product to their friends and neighbors in private Facebook groups or on their Instagram feeds. Ironically though, it would be one of those overeager sales reps who would ultimately help bring down Black Oxygen Organics.

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Ceara Manchester, a stay-at-home mom in Pompano Beach, Florida, runs the anti-MLM private group “BOO is WOO” on Facebook, and was deeply involved in BOO’s demise. “This was the first time that we were able to gather people in a large number and get them to understand how important recruiting is. Because people have been saying, ‘This is the way to do something about these companies,’ for a very long time, even before I was around. I just think that BOO’s claims, and it being dirt — that was a light-bulb moment for people. It clicked that, ‘Oh, we can’t let this shit happen,” Manchester tells me.

Manchester and other members of her group began testing BOO’s products, and then shared the results with each other and urged customers to take their complaints to government authorities. Their efforts led to a Canadian recall of BOO products and a product warning from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. “People saw the results — that they, as a grassroots movement, can do something — and that that’s the new age of anti-MLM activism. People now realize that they, the average person sitting at home, can do something to help take down these companies. I don’t think some people realized that they had that power before,” Manchester says.

One of the people Manchester worked with who had a massive impact on BOO’s downfall was David Bykowski, a former BOO employee turned anti-BOO activist. Bykowski was such a thorn in the side of the company that Saint-Onge and Garibaldi sued him to demand he end his campaign against them. They claimed that “Bykowski falsely states that Messrs. Saint-Onge and Garibaldi are ‘greedy’ and that Mr. Saint-Onge is a ‘flunky’ with no direct sales/MLM experience. Bykowski further falsely states that Mr. Garibaldi, who is married, has engaged in extramarital infidelity by ‘chasing Colombian women.’” Beyond the personal attacks, their lawsuit also alleged that Bykowski was trying to extort the company. 

On March 15, 2021, when his agreement with the company was first terminated, Bykowski wrote an email to Black Oxygen Organics, promising he would change: “I realize I should have held back and stayed out of the way and I apologize for my mistakes. I promise to change my approach and be more understanding in the future and support the needs and requests of my people and company directions. … I will do anything to stay involved in [Black Oxygen Organics] and I will respect your every wish and directive and I will support the business direction and opportunity without fail. … I pledge my total commitment and heart to this company and this business. I love this company and product and I love you guys and I am sorry I let you down.” 

When Saint-Onge and Garibaldi refused to reinstate his agreement, Bykowksi wrote to them again, this time with demands: “So here is my proposal, $200,000… $100,000 paid by the end of August and $20,000 paid over 5 months — September, October, November, December and January. … If you decide to except [sic] this settlement I will sign any documents that request I take down all my YouTube videos and refrain from any further posts about Black Oxygen Organics as well as other language you request to be added. … I have not even begun to reek [sic] the havoc I will continue to reek [sic] if you refuse this offer.”

When Bykowski’s agreement wasn’t reinstated, he was good to his word. He started his own private Facebook group and eventually joined Manchester and BOO is WOO to “reek havoc” on the company. Manchester remembers when Bykowski first approached her. “We just recently found out about [the bog] possibly being next to a landfill. And I was starting to dig into who owns it and all the corporate information. That’s how I came across Dave. He had a YouTube channel where he used to talk a lot about BOO and his experience with it. I reached out to him on one of his videos and got in contact with him on Facebook. And he became our first informant for BOO is WOO.”

The lawsuit filed by Saint-Onge against Bykowski showed that his tactics worked. It states, “After Bykowski began publishing false and disparaging statements about Black Oxygen Organics, the FDA put a hold on the sale of the companies’ products in the U.S. This has prevented Black Oxygen Organics from selling products in the U.S. market since August 18, 2021, resulting in a catastrophic loss of revenue and profits.”

Courtesy of BOO is WOO

Meanwhile, in November, Atlanta-based attorney Matt Wetherington filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of clients in Georgia, alleging that Black Oxygen Organics was liable for damages. “We began to receive inquiries and calls on our website with people having problems and issues. Ultimately, we sent the products out for independent testing, and then when that came back and showed that there were toxic heavy metals [lead, arsenic and cadmium among them] at an unsafe level, that’s when we knew we had to act,” Wetherington told the local news

“They want you to eat it,” he continued. “They want you to bathe in it. They want you to give it to your children. And they want you to eat it while you’re nursing and pregnant. At the end of the day, this product is literally dirt.”

Within days of filing the lawsuit, Wetherington was back on the news to announce he’d received a response from Saint-Onge and Black Oxygen Organics: “It is with a heavy heart that we must announce the immediate closing of BlackOxygen Organics.” 

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Like many of those suckered by Black Oxygen Organics, Beto O’Rourke believed in the powers of magic soil, too. The place he went to in New Mexico is called Chimayó, the home of El Santuario de Chimayó, a holy site. But as Reverend Casimiro Roca, who is in charge of El Santuario de Chimayó, explained to the New York Times in 2008, “It’s not the dirt that makes the miracles!” That, however, doesn’t stop visitors from flocking to the sanctuary in the desert to visit the hole in the earth where the sacred dirt resides. They also sell bags of the dirt in the church’s gift shop. 

The visitors take so much dirt away each year and purchase so many baggies of holy soil that Roca told the Times, “I even have to buy clean dirt,” meaning, he has dirt trucked in and added to keep up with demand. Again, though, not that he necessarily believes in his product: “I always tell people that I have no faith in the dirt; I have faith in the Lord. But people can believe what they want.” 

Conveniently, he skipped over the important point of why people believe what they believe. “I think the dirt gets blessed by the priests, doesn’t it?” 78-year-old Rosa Salazar, a believer who came to the sanctuary for the magical dirt, informed the Times.

Blessed by priests or not, it’s clear that our gullibility is pretty fertile ground for such fanciful promises. It’s easy to understand why — a magic elixir will always be a preferred course of action compared to the realities of life and the boundaries of science. But inevitably, all something like Black Oxygen Organics (or the soil gathered from El Santuario de Chimayó) will do is leave a bad taste in your mouth.