As a January 22nd talc trial fast approaches, Johnson & Johnson is yet again preparing to defend its Baby Powder, a product allegedly contaminated with asbestos. But the trial is scheduled mere days after a bombshell leak of new incriminating evidence.
This week, non-profit investigative news outlet FairWarning published findings from internal documents pertaining to Johnson & Johnson’s knowledge of asbestos in its products, some of which were uncovered last September. Newly released memos written by Johnson & Johnson officials now cast even more doubt on Johnson & Johnson’s honesty.
Public Assurances Fail to Stack Up against Private Concerns
Years of Johnson & Johnson’s lawsuits have centered on survivors and victims of mesothelioma – a lethal cancer caused exclusively by asbestos – who allege that the company knowingly exposed them to asbestos through its talc products. However, these plaintiffs have always faced pushback. The pharmaceutical and consumer products giant has relentlessly defended its products as safe, asbestos-free, and nothing to do with the patients’ conditions – attempting to discredit strong scientific evidence to deny its consumers justice.
That was until last year, when a lawsuit unsealed internal memos dating back to the 1970s. Pieced together, they show conversations between officials about asbestos contamination that was never properly addressed. This sparked a new wave of litigation based on the unsettling fact that, in contrast to public statements, Johnson & Johnson knew its products contained asbestos all along.
Experts agree that as little as 1, single asbestos fiber constitutes a hazard, especially in cosmetic products like talcum powder. But instead of screening its products for trace levels of asbestos, Johnson & Johnson officials tried to forestall any penalties by convincing regulators that these trace levels were safe. Unfortunately, they succeeded.
Tests Not Sensitive Enough to Detect Hazardous Levels of Asbestos
Among thousands of pages of documents, FairWarning’s most disturbing finding was an executive’s handwritten memo on a “Report of Dusting Experiment Performed with Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder” on babies.
“If 1% of these particles where asbestos fibers,” the note read, then the amount of asbestos a baby inhales would be “approximately a thousand times less” than the legal limit for a miner.
Johnson & Johnson argued to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that talc contaminated with small amounts of asbestos could not be harmful since exposure would make up a fraction of occupational standards. The company insisted that testing for anything less than 1 percent of asbestos would be unnecessary, and rallied with 16 industry allies to push the FDA to lower the detection limit.
“Our very preliminary calculation indicates that substantial asbestos can be allowed safely in a baby powder,” a J&J executive wrote after meeting with the FDA in January 1974, also noting that an FDA official “appeared skeptical” and “implied that what is safe for a miner may not be safe for a baby.” Another official, in a 1975 meeting, agreed the calculation was “foolish.”
Nevertheless, the FDA eventually backed off. An industry test method, developed by a lobbyist group called the Cosmetics, Toiletries, and Fragrance Association, was adopted in 1976. The detection limit was lowered from 1 percent to 0.5 – a level experts say cannot assure the absence of asbestos.
Indisputable Evidence Gives Even More Weight to Talc Lawsuits
When a screening test fails to detect asbestos in talc, it means 1 of 2 things: that the test wasn’t sensitive enough, or that the talc was indeed asbestos-free.
The latter is “proof” Johnson & Johnson has consistently relied upon – and for a long time, so did the FDA. In 1986, the FDA rejected a consumer’s petition to place an asbestos warning on talc products, saying the industry-administered test had a positive impact and product quality had “significantly improved.”
“Your petition has not persuaded us that the cosmetic talc that is presently being produced contains significant amounts of asbestiform minerals,” the FDA rejection letter read.
But since then – and in any case, for years prior to the new test method – researchers have consistently reported asbestos contamination in popular consumer products, including Johnson & Johnson’s. Such findings have aided a number of successful lawsuits, with thousands more pending, by consumers who developed mesothelioma and ovarian cancer after using the product for years.
FairWarning asked experts for their own opinions on Johnson & Johnson’s hastily scribbled analysis of its dusting experiment.
“It seems ludicrous to me that you would even be making that calculation,” said Celeste Monforton, formerly a U.S. Labor Department official and now an occupational and environmental health professor at Texas State University. “In this time period of the 1970s it was well established that asbestos was a carcinogen, and the notion that some amount is OK as long as it’s just a little … is unconscionable.”