Johnson & Johnson has allegedly known for decades that its talc products contain cancer-causing asbestos.
By the drugmaker’s accounts, Johnson & Johnson spent those decades certain that its iconic baby powder products were free of asbestos, “based on decades of monitoring, testing, and regulation,” according to a spokeswoman. But evidence from 5 talc cases has another story to tell: that Johnson & Johnson not only knew of the deadly mineral’s presence, learned of its dangers, and ignored them, but also made every effort to convince their vulnerable customers otherwise.
Even so, new documents revealed last month could add significant weight to victims’ already resounding claims.
In a pre-trial deposition, Johnson & Johnson’s chief medical officer presented internal memos dating back to the 1970s. All of these memos showed that the company knew about its products’ asbestos contamination and did nothing about it.
One document written by Johnson & Johnson’s director of research and development in 1974 clearly warned about traces of asbestos found in the company’s Vermont mine, recommending “the use of citric acid in the depression of chrysotile asbestos” from the site. “The use of these systems is strongly urged by this writer to provide protection against what are currently considered to be materials presenting a severe health hazard and are potentially present in all talc ores in use at this time,” the director wrote.
According to another 1973 report, officials found that the company’s talcum powder “contains talc fragments classifiable as fiber. Occasionally sub-trace quantities of [2 types of asbestos] are identifiable and these might be classified as asbestos fiber.”
In 1974, a booklet produced by owners of an Italian talc mine bought by Johnson & Johnson revealed its discovery of trace amounts of asbestos. Johnson & Johnson actively pushed to stop distribution of the booklet until company officials could rewrite it.
Johnson & Johnson Retaliates
Over the years, Johnson & Johnson released numerous accounts debunking involvement with asbestos – which seemed to defy nature, given that talc and asbestos often occur naturally together. Most documents dating back to at least 1972 showed that Johnson & Johnson denied any trace of asbestos at all in its talc mines, while 1 admitted that “some tremolite [a type of asbestos] was located, but was not asbestiform in character.”
However, even the smallest trace of asbestos poses a cancer risk, said expert Dr. Barry Castleman, who has testified for plaintiffs. “It is a problem even if it’s found in small amounts in talc, especially because it’s used by children and women,” he said.
Previous talc lawsuits show that Johnson & Johnson’s asbestos-contaminated products have single-handedly caused cancer. The majority of claims involve genital use of talc, which makes women 1.77 times more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Talc particles can travel to the uterus, causing inflammation that leads to cancer, according to studies that found talc in ovarian cancer tumors. Studies have also – time and time again – linked asbestos to mesothelioma, an incurable cancer that can develop from any amount of asbestos exposure in the home.
Dr. Castleman wrote to Johnson & Johnson about these health problems back in 1972. Their reply? “They responded that there was no asbestos in their talc,” Castleman said.
How Long Can J&J Tread This Sea of Indisputable Evidence?
Johnson & Johnson has never faltered in appealing verdicts and denying responsibility for asbestos-causing diseases, claiming these allegations lack credible, scientific proof.
On the contrary, the science seems clear. It has led gynecologists to discourage their patients from using talc products, like Baby Powder®. It has even led the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to declare asbestos-containing talc “carcinogenic to humans.”
Another newly revealed memo showed Johnson & Johnson’s effort to train its employees to reassure customers that talc “has never been found [in its products] and it never will.” When asked specifically about findings in the Vermont mine during the deposition, Johnson & Johnson chief medical officer Joanne Waldstreicher said, “40 years ago, there could have been different types of testing that may not be as accurate as the testing we have today.”
Still, in spite of today’s advances in testing, say asbestos lawsuits, Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder “is not now, nor has it ever been, free from asbestos and asbestiform fibers.” Add this fact to the recently released J&J internal memos and the 5,000-plus remaining talc lawsuits pending against Johnson & Johnson, and the company’s defense can only be weaker than ever.