In a new and deeply unsettling report from Reuters, it’s clear that high-level members of Johnson & Johnson were aware of possible asbestos contamination in their talc mines.
Talc, the primary ingredient in Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Baby Powder, often occurs in the same rock formations as asbestos. J&J hired geologists to run tests and make sure their talc mines were safe. Even small amounts of asbestos exposure can be fatal. Over the years, these experts raised significant questions about both the levels of asbestos they found, and the accuracy of the tests.
Until now, those concerns had never been heard by people outside Johnson & Johnson.
The Reuters report made use of internal company documents that came to light during a J&J asbestos lawsuit earlier this year. In that ruling, a jury awarded $4.69 Billion in damages to plaintiffs who alleged their ovarian cancer was caused by asbestos-tainted talc in J&J’s Baby Powder. As significant as that ruling is, the documents made public may have an even larger affect.
For years, people have claimed that there are small amounts of asbestos in Baby Powder. The company has denied those claims entirely. Johnson & Johnson presents itself as a compassionate and caring company that takes every step to ensure that that their products come with the highest safety standards.
What the Reuters report reveals is a history of deception. Far from being open with regulators and the public, internal memos reveal that Johnson & Johnson deliberately downplayed the risk of asbestos contamination in their Baby Powder.
Baby Powder and Asbestos — What’s the Connection?
At issue in the report is the mining of talc, a key ingredient in Baby Powder and many other consumer and industrial goods. Talc is a mineral that often occurs in the same geologic deposits as asbestos. Asbestos is a deadly mineral that, for years, was used in many consumer goods because of its natural strength and resistance to fire.
Exposure to asbestos is known to cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other terrible illnesses. Because the 2 minerals occur together naturally, companies that mine them need to take extra steps to make certain there is no asbestos present in the talc.
Many health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), have stressed repeatedly that there is no safe amount of exposure to asbestos. Once exposed, it can take 20-50 years (or longer) for symptoms to develop. It is no exaggeration to say that without the proper safe-guards on the mining of talc, millions of people will be put at risk of asbestos exposure.
According to the Reuters report, there may be no way to make sure that talc is entirely free of asbestos. If that is so, then companies that use the mineral in their products have an obligation to be honest about possible asbestos presence.
In the report, what becomes clear is that Johnson & Johnson went to great lengths, over the course of decades, to skirt around their obligation to accurately inform consumers.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when the dangers of asbestos were first becoming clear, the company tried to get the FDA to see that any trace amounts of asbestos in their talc-based products were not dangerous. Their internal tests kept showing that there was really no way to get all of the asbestos fibers out of the talc.
They eventually gave up this strategy, realizing that it could never work long term. J&J recognized that admitting to any level of asbestos their Baby Powder would spell doom for a product purchased by mothers. So, they shifted gears.
One interaction brought to light in the report captures this change in behavior perfectly. In 1973, the director of Johnson & Johnson’s Central Research Laboratories was looking into purchasing a patent for a process that separated talc from tremolite, a type of asbestos. He felt that the process could be “valuable” to the company, because it would lead to purer talc.
This makes sense, but the same director, later that year, wrote that they should abandon the idea altogether. If they purchased the patent, it would be an admission that there was asbestos in the talc. And was too dangerous, he wrote:
“We will want to carefully consider the … patents re asbestos in talc. It's quite possible that we may wish to keep the whole thing confidential rather than allow it to be published in patent form and thus let the whole world know."
This is characteristic of the company’s behavior uncovered by Reuters. Instead of trying to deal with the facts — talc is never free of asbestos — they ran a campaign saying just the opposite.
Regulators Never Saw Studies Johnson & Johnson Didn’t Like
J&J claim that they have always maintained the most rigorous testing when it came to detecting asbestos in their talc mines. And “almost all” of their tests show that there is no presence of asbestos. That said, the term “almost all” can be very confusing when the company has maintained that their product is asbestos-free for decades.
What the Reuters report alleges, and what people injured by asbestos from talc products have been trying to say for years, is that J&J knew – and knows – about the fact that they were using talc that had some measure of asbestos in it.
In 2 studies J&J sponsored in the 1970s, scientists had discovered of the presence of asbestos in their talc mines. Yet J&J never told the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about these studies. This behavior makes sense for a company that is only focused on maximizing their profits – at the expense of public health.
Johnson & Johnson Responds to Claims of Asbestos in Talc
One of J&J’s attorneys has described the studies in question as “outliers,” meaning the studies were insignificant anomalies. But that was never J&J’s decision to make. Consumers, and the regulators that protect them, are in charge of saying what does and does not represent a risk to the public health.
By omitting these studies from their reports, J&J misrepresented the risks they were aware of, and robbed consumers of the ability to make an informed choice about the products they used.
What Are the Implications of the Report?
The report is truly a shocking behind-closed-doors look into a company that has silenced victims who come forward, even as they hush up studies that raise red flags. Studies from the 1970s may very well have an impact on mesothelioma victims today because of the 20-50-year latency period between asbestos exposure and the appearance of symptoms. It is likely that the number of people affected is much larger than the number of people who have come forward so far.
The Reuters report redraws the battle-lines for victims who were told for years that Baby Powder was asbestos-free. Will recent reports like the one from Reuters change the company’s reckless behavior?
Johnson & Johnson has lost big in other major talc-related cases this year, but they plan to appeal these claims instead of making changes that could ultimately serve to better protect consumers. If past behavior is any indication of what is to come, J&J will continue to dismiss all claims of wrongdoing and approach this asbestos-related health crisis like some sort of PR issue that needs to be removed from the headlines.
That cannot be allowed to happen. Already, many people who have been injured have passed away while facts have been kept secret. How many more people have to be hurt before the company owns up to its carefully constructed campaigns of omission?