If you happen to find yourself at the bottom of the Delaware Bay, look closely and you’ll notice thousands of tiny beige filaments crisscrossing their way through the seaweed and waterlogged driftwood. At first glance, you might assume you’re looking at a collection of naturally occurring plant fibers or some kind of odd aquatic parasite. If, however, you were to test their composition (as a considerable number of scientists have done), you’d learn you’re actually witnessing something much simpler. Hair. Thousands of tons of living hair, snaking its way into the estuary from the Delaware river.
If you follow the hair, it’ll guide you up toward Philadelphia and into the Schuylkill river. From there, it extends up the banks into the clogged culverts and drainage ditches of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Then, somewhere near the exit for State Highway 73, the hair leaves the waterways and its thickening tangles reach into the woods of Wissahickon Valley Park.
By all accounts, the park looks different than it used to. The woodland creatures that once skittered around the forest floor have fled. The poplars, firs, and magnolias that stand thick and strong on the park’s website look hollow and shrunken in person, their cellulose leeched away by the hair and converted to alpha-keratin in a still undiscovered chemical process. The underbrush, completely smothered by the hair’s heavy tendrils, sits rotting in slow anaerobic decomposition.
Beyond this decay, in what was once a secluded meadow in the northeast corner of the park, is the hair’s terminus, or more accurately, its genesis, a fibrous mass so dense and so rapidly expanding that all attempts to curb its growth have failed. Somewhere in this mass, presumably a few feet underground, is the inaccessible collection of follicles that started this hirsute invasion.
Initial attempts to determine the species of the hair met with confusing results. DNA tests linked different strands to species as sundry as mice, rats, dogs, cats, and pigs. While this originally baffled researchers, most of those studying the hair now believe its origin to be manifold – the hair is growing not from one organism, but from many. This theory was recently corroborated by a whistleblower who court documents refer to as Adam Jones.
Jones, a custodial worker at a nearby pharmaceutical company, reported being asked by superiors to dispose of a variety of deceased lab animals between 2009 and 2014. Concerned about losing his job, Jones didn’t question the purpose of his task, even as he made seventeen separate trips to Wissahickon Valley Park to unload the animals’ nearly unrecognizable remains from his pickup. In his words, “The things I had in that truck, they hardly seemed like animals. They looked more like big puffy tangles of fur.” The location he reported leaving the bodies is the same location where the hair originates.
Not far from that spot is the former headquarters for McNeil Consumer Healthcare, Jones’ one-time employer and a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. In 1961, McNeil built their headquarters in Fort Washington, PA, right down the road from what would one day become ground zero for the invasion of hair.
While you’ve likely never heard of McNeil, chances are good you’ve used at least one of their products, which include Benadryl, Zyrtec, Motrin, and Tylenol. It was the last of these, specifically Children’s Tylenol, that forced the closure of their Fort Washington plant in 2015 after a six year legal battle found them criminally liable for unhealthy levels of chromium and nickel in the medication.
From Adam Jones’ report and the following investigation, we now know that McNeil’s misconduct and negligence didn’t stop with covering up heavy metal contamination in children’s pain relievers. It was the research and development of an entirely different product line that created the problem of the hair, one you may have guessed by now. Rogaine – specifically, an experimental treatment internally named Rogaine 9.
Early studies on Rogaine 9 were extremely promising in treating hair loss, but researchers quickly realized the solution was too effective, resulting in unregulated hair growth on all mammalian subjects. Even after ceasing use of the medication on the test subjects, their hair kept growing. It grew rapidly and tirelessly, converting an animal’s entire biomass into hair in just a few days. Worried about the ramifications of their discovery, executives at McNeil ordered the disposal of the lab animals’ bodies, which had become little more than shriveled husks blanketed in unruly masses of hair.
Despite the harm done to the lab animals, the Rogaine R&D department continued their experiments with the drug, believing that with the right tweaks, it could eclipse the modern hair rejuvenation market and become a major cash cow for McNeil. No future tests curbed the hair growth, and each animal subjected to the substance was dead within a week of their first treatment.
In the laboratory environment, the animals’ hair stopped growing when they died. By ordering the test subjects’ bodies dumped in the woods, McNeil’s executives merely sought to hide evidence of animal cruelty. By no account did any McNeil employees know that by bringing it outdoors, they’d be giving the hair more fuel – more biomass to add to its hairy hegemony.
It was Jones who first reported the still-growing hair in the graveyard of discarded test animals. Internal records obtained by the court show that McNeil Consumer Healthcare brought the issue to the attention of their parent company as early as 2011, four years before the heavy metal cover-up forced the closure of the Fort Washington plant.
Johnson & Johnson responded quickly. Teams of their techs descended on Wissahickon Valley Park throughout 2011. They tried cutting the hair, burning the hair, and dumping noxious chemicals on the hair. Aside from an acrid smell that disturbed nearly every resident in a fifty mile radius, their efforts had no effect. The hair always returned, somehow growing more quickly after being attacked. Before long, the techs were ordered to give up. One woman who worked on this cleanup crew and asked to remain anonymous told us, “That hair, it barely makes sense. From a scientific point of view, it shouldn’t exist. Whatever chemical process it's using to grow is beyond us.”
Specialists from the Center for Disease Control have recently tried similar measures. None has been successful. According to Anne Schuchat, the Principal Deputy Director of CDC, “If isolated early enough, the hair could have possibly been stopped, but now, with a virtually unlimited biomass from which to grow, it appears to be expanding exponentially.” She went on to explain that as the hair chokes and rots more flora and fauna under its tendrils, it makes those decaying organisms easier for the hair’s roots to absorb. Because of this, remediation appears impossible. The CDC’s current strategy is one of containment, though their efforts in this direction have not yet been fruitful.
As you read this, the hair continues to grow, largely unabated. Because it is not alive except at its inaccessible roots, the hair does not search for water or sunlight, as a vine might. The hair seeks little more than the path of least resistance. For now, that has led the hair downhill, throughout the waterways of the American Northeast. Though it’s currently contained to this area, there’s no reason to think it won’t spread.
Current models have been unable to plot the exact course the hair will take in the future, but all predict continued exponential growth. As it relentlessly lengthens, the hair will expand into higher elevations, piling atop itself until everything around it is covered. Without a way to curb its expansion, the hair will reach Manhattan in a month, its filaments ensnarling the subway tunnels and shutting down the city. Inside a year, it will smother most of North America. It will clog the turbines of the Hoover Dam and choke the pipes of the California Aqueduct, bringing the world’s largest economy to a standstill.
Within a decade, the hair will displace the oceans, causing the catastrophic flooding we thought would be the result of unchecked climate change. From there it will snake aimlessly around the globe, radically disrupting every ecosystem it touches. By the time its roots have finished consuming the living material underneath them, the hair will sit atop the monuments of every nation on the planet, draped over their crests like some sort of Satanic wig. Without a way to stop its encroachment, the hair will spell the end of civilization.
Soon there will be unlimited hair, and for now, we’re powerless to stop it.
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