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Something Evil in the Ear Canal

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There is an industry in this country so powerful that no one--not politicians, not journalists, not even rap artists--has had the cojones to stand up to it. I'm referring of course, to the cotton-swab industry, an industry that pumps millions into the American economy, and if my journalistic instincts are correct, possibly even more into the pockets of our Senators, publishers and rappers.

Unilever, the manufacturer of Q-Tips, sells a product it knows is used primarily for a purpose that any doctor in America will tell you is one of the most dangerous things you can do to your body from a standing position in the bathroom. Between 1992 and 1997, more than 100 people experienced a serious eardrum injury as a result of cleaning their ears with Q-Tips. Countless others came down with cases of tinnitus. And God only knows how many retrieved stuff that really grossed them out. We will never know the real numbers because the FDA no longer requires manufacturers to report swab malfunctions. Where is the outrage? Well, I am not afraid to speak out. And if that means losing my job, then I only hope Ben Affleck plays me in The Insider 2: The Middle Ear. He's a hottie.

Unlike the tobacco industry, which puts giant warning labels on billboard and magazine ads, Q-Tips puts giant warnings only on the back of its packaging. It never runs TV commercials showing cool-looking kids in leather jackets handing each other Q-Tips until one sticks a swab in so deep that blood spurts out. And while Philip Morris gives money to charities and the arts, I ask you to ask yourself if you've ever been handed a program that reads "Q-Tips Presents Verdi's La Traviata." And there aren't any Q-Tips racing teams. That's because the company spends all its money on the rap music.

To find out what kind of monsters work at Unilever, I called its headquarters in Westport, Conn., a town that was once the home of Martha Stewart. Before I stormed Westport, though, I armed myself with a little research. The Q in the brand name doesn't stand, as I had imagined, for "Quick, get me an ent guy," but rather for the suspicious-sounding quality. I also found out that Q-Tips were originally called Baby Gays. This doesn't help make my case, but it did make me really happy.

I called Q-Tips brand manager Michael Peterson and posed some tough questions about the company's practices. He told me he'd have to check with a supervisor. I felt like Mike Wallace--an idiot version of Mike Wallace with much worse hair.

Soon I received a call from Steve Milton, Unilever's v.p. of communication. He told me that Q-Tips weren't meant to be put inside the ear, and are often used "for bits of household cleaning and to take off makeup," though later, under my intense questioning, he admitted that "the majority are used for cleaning small orifices in and around the head," which is clearly newspeak for ears. When I asked if he himself put the anvil maimers into his ears, he paused for a long time and finally said, "Well, I don't really have a rummage around." Milton, I discovered, was British.

So I will continue, week after week, to use this space to bring down Unilever and their deaf-tips, as I will call them until they, like the cigarette manufacturers, are brought to justice.