Johnson & Johnson’s Dirty Secret

James F. Humphreys & Associates, L.C. has represented thousands of people who have been injured by asbestos. In many cases, people were exposed to asbestos without even knowing it. Recent reporting by Reuters and other news agencies reveals that Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that its raw talc and finished powders sometimes contained asbestos, but never shared that information with the public or government regulators.

The story begins in 1886, when Robert Wood Johnson and his brothers started a company that marketed medicated plasters, sticky rubber strips loaded with mustard and other remedies. These plasters irritated the skin, so Johnson & Johnson (J&J) provided its customers with packets of talcum powder. When J&J noticed that mothers were using this powder to treat diaper rash, it added a now familiar fragrance to its talcum powder and started selling it in tin boxes as Johnsons Baby Powder in 1893. J&J has dominated the talcum powder market for more than 100 years.

Although nothing may seem more safe and gentle than baby powder, Johnson & Johnson began receiving reports that the talcum powder used in its products sometimes contained a dangerous contaminant, asbestos. During the 1950s, concerned that its product was too abrasive, it sent samples of talc from its chief source, a mine located in the Italian Alps, to a laboratory in Columbus, Ohio for analysis. Reports issued in 1957 and 1958 indicated that the talc contained up to 3% of contaminants, mostly tremolite, a form of asbestos.

Photo Credit: Mike Mozart

In 1964, Windsor Minerals Inc., a subsidiary of J&J, bought a group of talc mines in Vermont. J&J used the talc from this mine in its cosmetic powders and other products. In 1967, it found traces of tremolite in talc from its Vermont mines.

Meanwhile, a group of scientists at the Mount Sinai Medical Center led by Irving J. Selikoff, a famous asbestos researcher, had begun investigating the question of asbestos contamination in talcum powder products. They shared their preliminary results with New York City’s environmental chief, who called a press conference in June 29, 1971 to announce that some unidentified brands of cosmetic talc contained asbestos. When the FDA began its own inquiry, J&J released a statement saying that: “Our fifty years of research knowledge in this area indicates that there is no asbestos contained in the powder manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.”

In 1976, as the FDA was considering limits on asbestos in cosmetic products, J&J told the agency that no asbestos was found in any of its talc samples produced between December, 1972 and October, 1973.  It neglected to mention, however, that tests conducted by three different labs between 1972 and 1975 found asbestos in its talc, in one case at “rather high” levels. To date, the FDA has never set any limits on the amount of asbestos used in cosmetics, although it has limited the amount of asbestos allowed in pharmaceuticals. Nor has it required talcum powder products to warn about possible asbestos contamination on their labels.

Although the FDA has not issued any regulations governing asbestos in cosmetic products, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrances Association (CTFA), a trade association, issued voluntary guidelines in 1976, saying that talc used in cosmetic products should be free of detectable amounts of asbestos. IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer) has classified talc that contains asbestos as a human carcinogen.   

In 1984, 1985 and 1986, J&J’s test lab found asbestos in samples taken from its Vermont mines. The company dismissed these results, saying that: “The samples that we know of during this time period that contained a fiber or two of asbestos were not cosmetic talc samples.”

In 2002 and 2003, asbestos fibers were found in talc produced for Baby Powder sold in Canada. The company dismissed these findings, which involved only a single fiber of asbestos in each sample, as “background asbestos” that did not come from talc. To this day, J&J asserts that its products do not contain asbestos although it now markets a product made with cornstarch, rather than talcum powder.

Photo Credit: Austin Kirk

Internal documents show that executives at J&J had serious concerns about asbestos contamination of their talc supplies for several years, worrying that the government might ban the use of talcum powder, or that public opinion would turn against it if the public learned that there might be asbestos in baby powder. In 1971, an executive at the company recommended to senior staff that it should “upgrade” its quality control of talc. In 1973, another executive warned that the company could no longer assume that its talc was asbestos free. Other executives suggested new testing procedures for asbestos, or removing talcum powder from  its products. Although J&J began to market a baby powder containing cornstarch instead of talcum powder in 1980, it continued to market a talcum powder based product without any warnings on the label concerning possible asbestos contamination, or any risk of cancer.

If a you or a loved one has been injured by exposure to asbestos, or has developed mesothelioma or ovarian cancer after using talcum powder products for several years, please call us at 304-347-5050 (local) or 877-341-2595 (toll free) for a free initial consultation. You can also reach us through our website, http://www.jfhumphreys.com.        

Sources

Lisa Girion, Reuters, December 14, 2018, “Johnson & Johnson Knew For Decades About Toxic Baby Powder,” http://www.msn.com/en-us/money/companies/johnson-and-johnson-knew-for-decades-ab

American Cancer Society, “Talcum Powder and Cancer: What is Talcum Powder?” https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/talcum-powder-and-cancer.html

Roni Caryn Rabin, The New York Times, “What is Talc, Where Is It Used and Why is Asbestos a Concern?” December 14, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/14/14/business/talc-asbestos-powder-facts.html

Roni Caryn Rabin & Tiffany Hsu, The New York Times, December 14, 2018, “Baby Powder’s Possible Asbestos Link Worried Johnson & Johnson for Years,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/14/business/baby-powder-asbestos-johnson-johnson.h…

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