After this year’s first Congressional hearing on the public health risks of asbestos in talcum powder, Johnson and Johnson (J&J) objected to the fact that the company had not been allowed to participate. They wanted an opportunity to tell their side of the story.
At issue in the hearing was asbestos contamination in talc products, most notably J&J’s iconic Johnson’s® Baby Powder. The company is currently facing more than 16,000 lawsuits alleging asbestos in J&J talc-based products caused mesothelioma, ovarian cancer, and other illnesses.
In a media release following the hearing, Johnson & Johnson argued that it was unfair that Congress did not get to “hear the preponderance of evidence that supports the safety of our product.”
In response, Chairman Raja Krishnamoorthi, head of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, invited Alex Gorsky, the CEO of J&J, to appear at the next hearing on asbestos and talc. Gorsky would be given the chance to speak in front of the subcommittee.
But he never showed up.
J&J CEO Avoids Testifying Under Oath
At the latest hearing, held on December 10, Chairman Krishnamoorthi expressed disappointment at Gorsky’s absence. J&J stated that Gorsky was not an appropriate witness because he lacked first-hand technical knowledge about asbestos contamination in talc.
“We wanted Mr. Gorsky to come forward with J&J’s side of the story, but he declined,” said Chairman Krishnamoorthi in his opening remarks. It was strange, he noted because Gorsky has hardly been silent on the issue in public:
“While Mr. Gorsky has not refrained from making multiple public statements on this topic, including authoring written statements and speaking with media outlets, he has now voluntarily avoided testifying under oath before Congress.”
J&J wanted to send a scientist instead of Gorsky, but in the end, no one appeared to testify on the company’s behalf. It may be true that Gorsky is not the best person to speak about the technical work his company does, but these are not the only questions Congress wants to ask.
There are much larger issues of accountability and negligence that J&J needs to answer for.
Deceiving the Public Is Not a Technical Matter
For the past year, J&J has been under intense scrutiny because of the way it has handled the risks posed by asbestos contamination in the company’s talc-based products. Talc, which is mined all over the world, is often found alongside asbestos. Records show that J&J was aware of the presence of asbestos in its mines for decades.
J&J knew about the risks that asbestos posed to consumers, but instead of warning the public, the company maintained its cosmetic talc was safe for everyday use. Millions of people used products, like Johnsons’ Baby Powder and Shower to Shower for years, putting themselves at risk of developing mesothelioma.
“Here are the facts,” said Chairman Krishnamoorthi, “There is evidence that for decades, tests have repeatedly found that Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder contained asbestos.” He discussed marketing strategies the company used to downplay the danger of their products, even though they knew they probably contained asbestos.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Gorsky is not here to speak to that,” he said.
FDA Finds Asbestos in Baby Powder — J&J Disagrees
The focus on the latest hearing was on asbestos detection methods. How do scientists determine whether or not asbestos is present in talc? This question came to a head in October of this year after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discovered asbestos in a bottle of Johnsons’ Baby Powder.
J&J immediately disputed the finding. The company had independent labs test the baby powder, and they detected no asbestos.
But asbestos detection is not that simple.
Many scientists and public health officials say that the lab methods currently used to test for asbestos in talc are essentially built to fail.
Why Aren’t the Best Detection Methods Used for Asbestos in Talc?
Dr. William Longo, who testified before the subcommittee, has studied asbestos for more than 3 decades. Asbestos fibers are extremely small and “virtually weightless.” In a single gram of talc, “millions of asbestos fibers can be present,” he said.
Without using the proper testing method, it will appear that there is no asbestos even though it is present in trace amounts. This is a public safety issue because, according to Longo, “The methods used in the past and today by the industry are not sensitive enough to detect trace levels of asbestos.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and World Health Organization (WHO) have said that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, and once someone is exposed, the risk appears to be life-long.
The testing methods proposed by Longo are not new, so why aren’t they being used?
In the 1970s, internal memos from J&J reveal that company officials suppressed the use of testing that was too sensitive. They started to realize that talc would never truly be free of asbestos. Instead of keeping people safe from asbestos exposure, J&J stuck with testing methods they knew were less than optimal and lied about the purity of their talc.
A recent Reuters investigation revealed the outsized role that cosmetic industry experts play in shaping FDA rules and regulations. This is why companies like J&J have been able to self-regulate with regards to talc, despite the serious health risks.
Chairman Krishnamoorthi told Reuters that things have to change. “When something as serious as cancer or carcinogens are at issue, self-regulation doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The more facts that come out, the harder it is becoming for Congress and the public to take J&J at their word. There is a stark difference between their private conduct with regards to talc, and the public perception they are still trying to create.
That’s something Gorsky should be able to address. Maybe someday he will.