As Johnson & Johnson has faced thousands of personal injury lawsuits that allege its baby powder products cause cancer, the healthcare giant continues to argue that science is on its side and that the products never contained asbestos. But documents that were filed in several legal cases have some that some J&J tests did find asbestos, and the company conducted a fierce internal debate about the problem. (fiercepharma.com)
At the same time, in a possible class action suit filed in 2019, an investor in J&J stated the company knew for many decades that its baby powder products had asbestos fibers in them, and that exposure could lead to mesothelioma or ovarian cancer.
At a recent company quarterly filing, J&J was facing about 6,000 lawsuits that claimed its baby powder products could cause cancer. Many alleged the products could lead to ovarian cancer. Some of the cases, such as one brought by Tina Herform in California, stated the product caused her mesothelioma. But the company won that case.
According to a J&J representative, the company remains confident that its baby powder products are and always have been free of asbestos. This has been shown in decades of monitoring, regulation and testing going back more than 40 years.
The representative stated that historic sample testing by FDA and many laboratories and scientists have shown the company’s baby powder products do not contain asbestos.
The documents produced in court, which were provided by attorneys for plaintiffs in litigation, challenge this assertion. There were two internal memos from the 1970s, and there was testimony offered in the case in 2018 that indicated there was asbestos in talc in samples that were reviewed that same decade.
The recent shareholder lawsuit, which was filed by Frank Hall for investors who bought J&J stock from 2013 to 2018, alleges that the company knew for many years that its products, including Baby Powder, had asbestos fibers and that being exposed to it could lead to mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.
That lawsuit named J&J as the defendant, as well as CEO Alex Gorsky and CFO Dominic Caruso. J&J did not make any mention of the lawsuit in its media statement.
Two Documents From J&J Employees
Two of the documents that came out during litigation were from J&J employees. One of them concerned a mine based in Vermont and the other concerned J&J’s talc supplier in Italy. Another internal document was a lab report that found small amounts of tremolite in two batches of talc. Tremolite is a form of asbestos that can be harmful to human health.
A 1973 memo called Windsor Minerals and Talc stated that an employee believed the mine to be clean, but that it was possible that asbestos fibers could also be found in limited cases. That employee wrote that talcum powder that was used in packing materials could contain various amounts of fibrous or tremolite talc.
The memo continued that the Baby Powder product has talc fragments that could be classified as fiber. Sometimes, subtract quantities of tremolite can be identified and these could be called asbestos fiber.
That employee also stated the firm was looking at alternatives to improve and protect the powder franchise, including improvements to select talc better and to make a better effort to remove most of the fine particles that are being found in some talc batches. It also was discussed to replace talc with cornstarch.
Also, a 1974 memo stated that one employee visited the Italian talc supplier SVC to deal with the possible ‘upsetting impact’ that distribution of a SVC publication could have on the talc market around the world. He noted the business threat of the publication could raise some doubts about the safety and purity of talc which has been established in the US and UK.
That memo stated that Italian talc is the best and purest in the world, and contains only tiny traces of chrysotile asbestos. The internal J&J memo also said the publication put too much attention to various trace metals and calls them harmful.
That J&J employee said he and several others had good talks with SVC and the supplier said it would stop distributing the English versions of that publication. SVC also allowed J&J to rewrite it for countries that speak English.
Yet another document that was released in 2017 cases was written by a chemistry student from New York University who said he found small amounts of asbestos in at least 50% of talcum powder samples that he studied in 1973.
Despite these documents, J&J has continued to stand by its products as the legal caseload has grown. The company has been on the losing end of some early lawsuits, but has been able to get verdicts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars reversed on appeal. It did suffer losses of $55 million, $70 million and $110 million in St. Louis but has pledged to appeal in all of those cases.
New Documents Point to Talc-Asbestos Lab Findings. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.fiercepharma.com/legal/new-documents-point-to-talc-asbestos-lab-findings-j-j-response-to-issue