Investigation alleges Johnson & Johnson knew about asbestos in baby powder

A recent Reuters report alleges that beginning in the late 1950s, Johnson & Johnson knew its talc powder sometimes tested positive for asbestos, specifically tremolite, one of the six asbestos minerals.

“Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services have named asbestos as a carcinogen, so that’s a chemical that causes cancer in the body. So it’s been linked to a variety of different types of cancers — mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and other gynecological cancers are kind of the leading ones that have been implicated,” said Emily Barrett, an associate professor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Rutgers Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute.

Johnson & Johnson has been sued by thousands of plaintiffs in New Jersey and elsewhere, who’ve claimed that its talcum powders cause cancer. The company has both won and lost those jury trials.

But when Verona resident Stephen Lanzo developed mesothelioma, he hired personal injury attorneys who traced it back to the baby powder that he had been using for 30 years. He and his wife Kendra brought suit against Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of the product, and won a $117 million judgment in April 2018. His case is significant because they’re the first plaintiffs to defeat Johnson & Johnson in court over allegations that its talcum powders contain asbestos.

Jerome Block represented Lanzo. He said that months of litigation revealed previously confidential internal documents.

“It’s clear that Johnson & Johnson’s own documents show that their talcum powders were contaminated with asbestos,” Block said. “It wasn’t until the trial of the Lanzo case that many of those documents became unsealed. And they now have become publicized through articles like the Reuters article that just came out.”

One document, a 1969 memo from Johnson & Johnson’s executive in charge of talc supply, acknowledged that, “It’s normal to find different levels of Tremolite in many U.S. talcs …” He continues, “The question is … How bad is Tremolite medically, and how much of it can safely be in a talc base we might develop?”

In 1973, the director of Johnson & Johnson’s central research lab considered acquiring a patent on a process to remove tremolite from talc, but in a later memo said the company ” … 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.”

Even after the ruling in the Lanzo case, Johnson & Johnson maintains that its talc products are completely safe and asbestos-free — and have been for decades.

“Johnson & Johnson has been in the news lately about the talc in our baby powder. And we know how important this topic is to you, so I want you to hear it directly from me. We know that our talc is safe,” said Alex Gorsky, CEO of Johnson & Johnson, in a recorded video. “Studies of tens of thousands of women and thousands of men show that talc does not cause cancer or asbestos-related disease.”

The company also said in a statement that no employees working in the talc mines ever tested positive for mesothelioma, and that Reuters “ignored overwhelming science that shows talc does not cause cancer.”

But some in the scientific community disagree.

“And you often get, talc deposits that can be contaminated with asbestos because asbestos runs in veins through the deposits. So when the talc is mined, you inadvertently may get some asbestos mixed in,” said Barrett.

With the opposing opinions, it can be hard for customers to know what’s safe and what’s not.

“If you do want to use it, it might be a safer bet to use a cornstarch-based formula,” Barrett said.

Barrett also suggests consumers research all the ingredients in their personal care products.

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