In 2018 and 2019, evidence came to the surface that Johnson & Johnson was aware that some of its raw talc contained asbestos as far back as the 1970s, and did nothing about it. A recent Reuters examination of thousands of pages of company memos that came out in several baby powder cancer trials indicates the degree to which company officials knew about the cancer risk and chose to hide it.
From 1971 until the early 2000s, the Reuters study showed J&J’s raw talc and finished baby powder sometimes tested positive for traces of asbestos, a known human carcinogen that can cause ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. The released internal documents also should how the company was successful in influencing the FDA and other regulators to scale back plans to reduce asbestos in cosmetic talc products as well as clinical studies on the negative health effects of talc. (Reuters.com)
‘Rather High’ Levels of Asbestos
The study by the media organization found the earliest mention of J&J talc tainted with asbestos appeared in 1957 and 1958 reports by a third-party laboratory. The lab described the talc contaminants from Johnson & Johnson’s Italian supplier of talc as fibrous and needle-like tremolite. That is one of the six minerals that are classified as asbestos.
During various periods in the 70s until the early 2000s, internal reports by scientists at the company, outside laboratories, and suppliers found similar conclusions. The reports pinpoint contaminants in raw talc and finished powder as asbestos. Or, they are described as ‘fiberform’ or ‘rods,’ which are terms usually used with asbestos.
In the mid-1970s, the FDA was considering placing limits on levels of asbestos in cosmetic talc products. But J&J assured the federal regulator there was no asbestos found in any sample of their talc that was produced in 1972 and 1973. But it failed to tell FDA that a minimum of three tests by three laboratories from 1972 to 1975 did find asbestos. In one report, levels of asbestos were said to be ‘rather high.’
Most Internal J&J Reports Did Not Find Asbestos, But…
Reuters found the majority of asbestos test reports by the company did not find any presence of asbestos at the time. However, while the testing techniques used by J&J over time got better, there were limitations that would allow traces of some contaminants to not be reported. Also, only a tiny fraction of the firm’s raw talc is tested for asbestos. So there could have been more asbestos present in talc but it was either not detected or never tested for at all.
‘Safe’ Levels of Asbestos Exposure?
One of the arguments in many of the talcum powder cancer lawsuits across the country is this: What is a ‘safe’ level of exposure to asbestos? Some standards say talc should be 99.9% free of asbestos, while those favored by industry are a much laxer 99.5%.
The WHO and other major public health entities say there is no safe level of asbestos exposure. It is true that most people who are exposed to baby powder for years do not get cancer. But for some of them, even a small level of asbestos exposure is enough to cause ovarian cancer or mesothelioma many years later. Just how small the asbestos exposure can be to cause cancer is unknown, but successful lawsuits have argued the amount of asbestos exposure on the female genitals or in the lungs was enough to trigger cancer.
What Did J&J Know and When Did It Know It?
The documented evidence of what J&J knew and when it knew it has come up after people who thought talc caused their ovarian cancer or mesothelioma hired attorneys experienced in litigation involved in manufacturing workers exposed to asbestos on the job. Some of the attorneys knew from those mesothelioma cases that producers of talc regularly test for asbestos, and they started to ask to see the testing documentation from Johnson & Johnson.
The documents the company provided allowed the attorneys for the cancer sufferers to make stronger legal arguments. The cause of the cancer may not have been the talc, but the asbestos lurking in the talc. That allegation, backed by many years of science showing that asbestos exposure causes mesothelioma and ovarian cancer, has led to some successful verdicts in US courts.
Major Verdict in Missouri Leads to More Talcum Powder Cancer Lawsuits
The biggest court decision against J&J to date was a verdict in St. Louis that involved 22 plaintiffs. They were the first litigants to succeed with the claim that baby powder tainted with asbestos caused their ovarian cancer, which is more common than mesothelioma. The jury awarded them an astounding $4.7 billion collectively in damages. Many of the talc cancer cases have been filed by women with ovarian cancer who claim they often used talc products from J&J on their genitals. (Nytimes.com)
J&J Derides Verdicts As Based on ‘Junk Science’
Although its own laboratory tests confirm some raw talc did contain asbestos decades ago, J&J says it will appeal most of the recent verdicts against it. It always states in public that baby powder is safe. It blames losses in court on ‘junk science’, court rules that were skewed against them and aggressive, money-hungry attorneys looking for new asbestos plaintiffs.
According to one J&J executive, plaintiffs’ attorneys are trying to gain financially and are distorting decades-old documents and causing confusion in court and in the press. J&J says it is a ‘calculated attempt’ to distract consumers from the fact that thousands of laboratory tests prove J&J talc does not contain any asbestos or cause cancer.
Conclusion – Some Talcum Powder Cancer Victims Have a Case
There is sufficient scientific evidence, as well as documentation from Johnson & Johnson, to suggest a possible link between some of its raw talc and various types of cancer. The fact that some of the company’s own internal reports mention the presence of asbestos in some lots of raw talc is damning evidence. Asbestos lurked in some of their talc, and the company stayed silent.
For people who have been diagnosed with cancer and were regular users of baby powder for years, it is recommended to talk to a licensed attorney to decide if there is enough evidence in your case to move forward with legal action.
- J&J Cancer Special Report. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-johnson-johnson-cancer-special-report/special-report-jj-knew-for-decades-that-asbestos-lurked-in-its-baby-powder-idUSKBN1OD1RQ
- J&J Loses Bid to Overturn $4.7 Billion Baby Powder Verdict. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/business/johnson-johnson-baby-powder-verdict.html