Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder Asbestos Worries Uncovered
According to memos from executives at Johnson & Johnson, the link between talcum powder and asbestos has been a concern in the company for decades. One document sent to senior staff at the company in 1971 raised concerns that the main ingredient of the company’s top-selling baby powder product could potentially contain asbestos. The memo recommended that the company should “upgrade” their quality control operations for talc.
In 1973, only two years later, a second company executive raised another red flag and stated that the company shouldn’t assume that their talc mines were free of asbestos. The baby powder, according to the executive, were sometimes found with materials that could “be classified as asbestos fiber.”
Asbestos is a naturally occurring carcinogenic substance that is often found underground close to deposits of talc and has worried Johnson & Johnson executives for decades. Across well over 200 pages of memos, executives have expressed their concern about potential government bans of talc as well as the safety of their product. The memos also mentioned worries that public resentment over their baby powder could damage the company’s brand which focuses on health and trustworthiness.
According to documents from Johnson & Johnson that have recently been uncovered through litigation as well as interviews with scientists and lawyers and government records gathered through the Freedom of Information Act, company executives had proposed alternative procedures for testing the product and even suggested replacing the main ingredient of their baby powder altogether.
One memo that summarized a meeting between a company executive and an official from the Food and Drug Administration showed that Johnson & Johnson demanded unfavorable government research findings be blocked from going public. The company won an assurance from the FDA, with records showing that a government official noted that certain findings would only be issued “over (his) dead body.”
The efforts shown in these memos are now a crucial part of a new front in the long-running legal battle being fought over Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder and could leave the company open to almost 12,000 injury suits from across the country that claim the product causes various types of cancer including mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.
In the summer of 2018, 22 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer successfully brought their case against Johnson & Johnson by arguing that the company knew about their product’s connection to asbestos. Two more lawsuits were also won in New jersey, and California, all by people who contracted mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos that affects the lining of the body’s internal organs. The case in Missouri focused on the connection between the mining of talc and asbestos fibers and a jury awarded the 22-year-old plaintiff 4.69 billion dollars, one of the most expensive injury verdicts ever. According to lawyer Nathan Schachtman, the possibility of a connection with asbestos puts the company’s legal defense “in a much more difficult position.” Schachtman noted that juries express a high level of indignation when asbestos is part of the picture.
The company is appealing the three cases and has won three other mesothelioma related lawsuits, while four more were declared mistrials. Johnson & Johnson insists that its baby powder is safe and claims that the product has never contained any asbestos, saying that claims against them are founded in “junk science.” The company has also claimed that prosecuting lawyers have “cherry-picked” what documents they are using for their case and haven’t properly showed the company’s commitment to safety.
For more than one hundred years, Johnson & Johnson has advertised its baby powder as a gentle and pure product that is safe for children. The company claims the talc they use in their products has been tested by “multiple entities” as early as the 1970’s and that the testing has continued up until the present day. According to a lawyer from one of the company’s legal defense firms, none of the routine quality tests from the past 50 years detected an asbestos presence.
Before the verdict in Missouri, Johnson & Johnson had successfully fought against most legal challenges that attempted to connect cancer to talcum powder itself. The company was able to defend itself partly by claiming that research showing the powder is dangerous was flawed and by offering several studies that showed contrary evidence. Out of the six cases that the company has lost that did not focus on asbestos in the powder, three have been overturned, one is still in the process of being appealed, and one plaintiff was able to win her case but wasn’t awarded any damages. The remaining case rewarded the plaintiff $110 million and the decision has been upheld by a judge. However, the company is appealing the decision.
The results of lawsuits may be significantly changed by focusing on the relationship of talc with asbestos, as the latter is a proven carcinogen. Even trace amounts of asbestos are dangerous and its small fibers can penetrate into the body, leading to mesothelioma and other cancers decades after exposure. Furthermore, several tests have been able to show evidence of asbestos being found in talc. The link between ovarian cancer and talc was first reported in the year 1958. 53 years later, the International Agency for Research on Cancer reported that asbestos was, in fact, the cause.
Langer and Pooley’s Research
The mineral was once a commonly used substance in shipyards, home insulation material, auto parts, and factories because it was cheap to mine as well as strong and durable. However, by the 1970s, it was also widely accepted that asbestos is a dangerous substance. Environmental researchers began testing household products and building materials as consumer safety groups began sounding alarms.
Two mineralogists, Fred Pooley and Arthur Langer, worked together on a study about asbestos in various powders sold in America and Britain. Pooley had plans to present their research data at a conference for occupational health hazards in Britain during September 1975. However, Pooley had also been a private consultant for cosmetics producers. When Langer discovered that there were minerals that could have possibly been asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder, Pooley contacted the company to warn them. In memos issued after Pooley’s call, the company called Langer “devious” in internal memos and referred to his findings as “controversial.” Pooley reportedly canceled the presentation after the company pressured him to remove the asbestos report from his conference data.
After this, Langer continued research independent of Pooley. In 1976, Langer and his colleagues from Mount Sinai Medical Center told news outlets that they had found asbestos within a number of commercially available talcum powders. However, the reports explicitly mentioned that no asbestos had been found in any Johnson & Johnson products. The results of these tests were soon published in a scientific journal.
Despite the exclusion of their products, the company handled the report aggressively. Within days of Langer’s report, he met with executives from Johnson & Johnson who told him that he and his colleagues ought to avoid “frightening mothers unnecessarily.” In addition to this detail, a company memo describing the meeting notes that Langer and Mt. Sinai researchers should make corrections to their statements and have those corrections sent to media and public entities “by noon of the next day.”
As a response to the demands, the Mount Sinai group told executives that they actually had found asbestos in the company’s baby powder, but had not made note of it in their report because they only found trace amounts and thought that the levels were not high enough to be of any significance. Eight days after, the president of Mount Sinai sent out a statement in order to rectify “misimpression the media reports may have generated” regarding talc. The report said that their asbestos testing had been performed on older products and that the new powder was safe for use on babies.
However, one of the researchers at Mount Sinai disputed the statement during a 1976 Washington Post interview, stating that the team of scientists had tested both old and new powders. The Post also quoted a statement from the FDA that said Mount Sinai could detect smaller amounts of asbestos than their labs could.
According to public records, Mount Sinai received money during the 1970s from a philanthropy group called the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This group was established in the early years of the 1970s with about 1.2 billion dollars in Johnson & Johnson’s company stock, but was founded as an independent entity. Despite this, several of Johnson & Johnson’s senior executive officers, including the company’s C.E.O, served on the board of directors for the foundation while others joined the board shortly after retiring. Johnson & Johnson’s lawyers claim the company has never influenced the actions of the foundation.
Lewin’s FDA Report
Increasing concerns about asbestos prompted the FDA to commission chemist Seymour Lewin to test talc products for the dangerous mineral in 1972. Mr. Lewin reported that he found asbestos in more than half of the 11 samples of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder that were tested. A consumer products industry group was handed a confidential copy of the government report. The group threatened a lawsuit in order to block Lewins’ findings from going public. Johnson & Johnson asked the FDA to keep Lewin’s findings confidential, stating in a memo that publicizing the data would cause “ a great deal of unwarranted alarm.”
According to an unearthed corporate memo about the incident, one FDA official told executives that Lewin’s data would only be issued “over my dead body.” The company had an internal scientist investigate Lewin’s research and compiled a list of contradictory data and testimonials from other scientists. Ultimately, Lewin’s final report stated that most of the Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder samples were either asbestos free or tested inconclusively, despite an initial report stating that most samples contained at least 2 percent asbestos.
Aviam Elkies, who worked in Lewin’s lab during the 1972 product tests, told the New York Times that their samples of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder did include asbestos. Elkies noted that asbestos was found in half of the tested samples and that they had not found a way to predict when and where the mineral would turn up.
Optimism for Plaintiffs
The FDA has reported that the most recent product testing (conducted in 2009-2010) found no asbestos, but added that these results were significantly “limited” because very few products and raw samples of talc had actually been tested. Johnson & Johnson have continued to defend themselves and their product by seeking to have court documents sealed, hiring crisis management lawyers, and even making a website to extol the safety of talc.
In spite of defense efforts by the company, lawyers representing plaintiffs with ovarian cancer and mesothelioma allegedly caused by Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder have expressed optimism over the trove of evidence that has been uncovered during the most recent round of litigation. The link to asbestos has caused many to rethink their legal approach, focusing on asbestos in talcum powder instead of merely trying to link the product to ovarian cancer. Michael J. Miller, a Virginia lawyer who was involved in the Missouri trial, told reporters that him and his colleagues “didn’t even know there was asbestos in there to win these cases” and stated that knowing about this link will make prosecution “even easier.”
For more information about this topic, check out this MSNBC report on YouTube:
More by Ed Smith, Sacramento Talcum Powder Injury Lawyer
- Uptick in Talcum Powder Lawsuits
- How can a Sacramento Personal Injury Lawyer Help Me?
- Baby Powders that Contain Talcum
Sacramento Talcum Powder Injury Lawyer
I’m Ed Smith, a Sacramento talcum powder injury lawyer. If you or someone in your family has used talcum powder products and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer or another talc related illness, call me in order to get free, friendly advice about how you can protect your rights and claim the money you deserve. I’m available at (916) 921-6400 and toll-free at (800) 404-5400.
I have practiced wrongful death and personal injury law in Sacramento for 37 years. If you’d like to learn about how I’ve helped my clients obtain fair verdicts and settlements for their damages, see my case resolution page here. For personal reviews written by the clients I’ve worked with, go to:
I’m a California attorney in the Million Dollar Advocates Forum. Trial lawyers in the forum have won a client more than one million dollars in a single case.
Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder Asbestos Worries Uncovered: Ed Smith
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