Johnson & Johnson has been hit with numerous lawsuits by victims of mesothelioma, a rare asbestos-related cancer that tends to show symptoms years after exposure. The controversy over J&J baby powder is not new—rather, it’s decades old. In the early 1970s, a company official posed the question: If J&J Baby Powder contained 1 percent asbestos, how much of the cancer-causing substance would a baby inhale during normal use? The conclusion was that it would be much less than the legal limit. However, the fact that the company was posing such a question led many to believe this common household item could, in fact, be cancer-causing.
The issue on the table is whether talc powders contain traces of asbestos, and whether, plaintiffs who use the powder could have inhaled enough of it to contract mesothelioma. In November of last year, J&J was victorious in its first mesothelioma trial after a Los Angeles Superior Court jury found the company and co-defendant Imerys Talc America not responsible for 61-year-old Tina Herford’s mesothelioma. Prior to that, the same co-defendants received a similar outcome in an ovarian cancer case brought about by Nora Daniels, a Tennessee resident who had long used the powder for feminine hygiene purposes, later contracting cancer.
The next trial involving J&J’s talc powder and mesothelioma is set for January 22nd in Middlesex County Superior Court in New Brunswick, N.J. Plaintiff Stephen Lanzo III has filed suit claiming he is convinced he used asbestos-contaminated powder for many years, and this has caused him to contract the deadly form of cancer.
Following Daniels’ ovarian cancer trial, J&J released a statement: “The jury’s decision is consistent with the science, research, clinical evidence and decades of studies by medical experts around the world that continue to support the safety of cosmetic talc.” However, documents kept under lock and key until this point show that the company’s officials privately acknowledged they had an asbestos problem in the 1970s, hence the inquiry regarding whether asbestos exposure at 1 percent was harmful. Officials attempted to persuade federal regulators that no one would be harmed if talc powder contained only trace amounts of the carcinogen.
What’s more, around the same time, New York University and Mount Sinai Hospital separately reported finding asbestos in many of the popular talc-based powders and cosmetics. For J&J, the findings represented a very real threat to its wholesome brand and to a product the company referred to as “the cornerstone of our baby products franchise.’’
Soon after a press release was issued, a J&J company official distributed an internal memo stating, “It would seem more than appropriate that we upgrade the quality control on our talc and baby powder, particularly as to the potential asbestos content.”
A 1973 FDA issued statement also stated: “in one meeting that we had with them [Johnson & Johnson], 16 technical people from the United States and Europe presented a seminar covering analytical methods, toxicology and mining technology.” It was in that meeting that J&J sought to convince the FDA that even if small amounts of asbestos slipped into its powders, no one would be harmed, because the exposures would be a tiny fraction of the allowable limit.
“Our very preliminary calculation indicates that substantial asbestos can be allowed safely in a baby powder,” one J&J executive wrote.
So, despite the fact that J&J has been successful as of late in its fight against cancer claims, substantial evidence still exists which indicates the company has been worried about carcinogens in its products for many years. Whether it will ever be held accountable is yet to be seen.