Johnson & Johnson is the world’s leading manufacturer of health care products. The company has been under fire since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reportedly found trace amounts of chrysotile asbestos in samples collected from one bottle purchased online. Shortly thereafter, the company recalled the over 33,000 bottles of baby powder in response to the testing. The FDA advised the public to immediately cease use of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder. Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive cancer with no cure and a poor prognosis. Thus far, the only cause attributed to the development of mesothelioma is the exposure to asbestos.
Johnson & Johnson continues to be the center of attention, and quite literally under the microscope, as cases emerge claiming the use of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and the development of mesothelioma. Johnson & Johnson has endured other legal troubles in the past in relation to their baby powder (talcum powder) linking to other conditions such as ovarian cancer. However, it has recently been dealing with controversy surrounding allegations of their asbestos-contaminated products. Over the years, Johnson & Johnson has insisted that their products are asbestos-free and safe for use.
What is Talcum Powder, and Does it Cause Cancer?
Talcum powder contains the natural mineral talc. Talc is used in an assortment of both consumer and industrial products. It is typically found in cosmetics, baby powder, plastics, and more. Its powder form works to absorb moisture and prevent rashes.
There is an important distinction between talc that is asbestos-free and talc that contains asbestos. Generally, if talc contains asbestos, it can cause cancer if it is inhaled. Further studies have been conducted on asbestos-free talc — the studies hope to determine if a substance or the actual exposure to the substance is linked to cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, researchers use two main types of studies: Lab studies and studies in people. As the name suggests, the lab studies take place in a lab where animals are exposed to a large amount of asbestos to determine if it causes tumors or other health problems.
The studies in the lab expose healthy cells to the talc substance to see if they produce cancer cells. Since these lab studies are conducted on animals, it is unclear whether the results may apply to humans. The studies that have exposed the lab animals to asbestos-free talc in different ways have produced mixed results as some show tumor formation, and others do not. However, it is an excellent indicator to see if a substance could potentially cause cancer.
Another common type of research to better understand if talc can cause cancer is studies conducted on humans. The studies evaluate cancer rates in groups composed of different people. These studies are challenging because it is hard to determine if the results are conclusive. This is because other factors, such as individual predispositions or environmental factors, may affect the results.
Ongoing Research for Possible Asbestos-Contaminated Cosmetics
Generally, pure talc has been considered safe. Conversely, asbestos-contaminated talc has been an ongoing health concern for several decades. There are also occupational risks in an industrial setting. Talc miners could be at risk for asbestos exposure. Other products like baby powder could be contaminated, and many express grave concerns because of the potential long-term use, hence long-term asbestos exposure. Other studies conducted in 2017 and 2018 have confirmed the presence of asbestos in cosmetic products, especially in children’s make up brands found in popular stores like Claire’s and Justice.
A 2019 study conducted by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine essentially established the link between asbestos-laced talcum powder and mesothelioma. They researched the use of cosmetic talc and talcum powder that was suspected to cause mesothelioma. This is significant because it is non-occupational form asbestos exposure. The research studied 33 individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma. Researchers found asbestos fibers in tissue samples that were consistent with fibers found in contaminated talcum powder. The study concluded that “[e]xposure to asbestos-contaminated talcum powders can cause mesothelioma. Clinicians should elicit a history of talcum powder usage in all patients presenting with mesothelioma.”
It is unclear if the asbestos-contaminated products will lead to more cases of mesothelioma in the future. It is unclear for a couple of reasons. For example, the studies may not be conclusive because there are other methods of exposure to asbestos that could be the leading cause of mesothelioma depending on the individual’s lifestyle, occupation, and exposure history. Additionally, the latency period for mesothelioma is long. This can hinder the presence of any symptoms of mesothelioma for several decades.
History of Johnson & Johnson’s Discrepancies
In December of 2014, Thomas Reuters issued a special report revealing that,
“Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that small amounts of asbestos, a known carcinogen, had been occasionally found in its talc and powder products, according to tests from the 1970s to the early 2000s – information it did not disclose to regulators or the public. In its letter, J&J said samples of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973 were tested for asbestos, and none was detected ‘in any sample.’”
Johnson & Johnson also failed to notify the Food and Drug Administration about a test conducted by a Dartmouth College Professor in 1974. The test found asbestos in the talc from Johnson & Johnson in “fiberform.” Moreover, the company failed to tell the Food and Drug Administration that in 1975 that one of its labs discovered asbestos fibers in five of the 17 samples of the talc located in the company’s top talc used in its baby powder. Johnson & Johnson insisted that the tests were wrong.
Current Investigation of Johnson & Johnson and Asbestos Contamination
On October 18, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release stating,
“Out of an abundance of caution, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. (JJCI) announced that it is initiating a voluntary recall in the United States of a single lot of its Johnson’s Baby Powder in response to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) test indicating the presence of sub-trace levels of chrysotile asbestos contamination (no greater than 0.00002%) in samples from a single bottle purchased from an online retailer. Despite the low levels reported and in full cooperation and collaboration with the FDA, JJCI is initiating this voluntary recall of Lot #22318RB of Johnson’s Baby Powder, from which the tested sample was taken.”
Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. (JJCI) also conducted a thorough investigation while working closely with the FDA to 1) determine the reliability of the sample tested, and 2) the legitimacy of the results. Initially, the reports indicated that JJCI is not able to confirm any of the following:
- Any sort of cross-contamination may have caused a false positive.
- Whether the sample was extracted from a sealed bottle or if the sample was procured in a controlled environment.
- Whether the product tested was legitimate or counterfeit.
As of November 2019, new findings have been released on the Johnson & Johnson baby powder testing, and the results are nothing short of convoluted.
Conflicting Results from Johnson & Johnson’s Testing and its Link to Mesothelioma
Johnson & Johnson has been the center of controversy since a test was conducted by the Food and Drug Administration on the company’ bottle of baby powder. The test revealed that it was contaminated with asbestos, which could lead to certain cancers such as mesothelioma. In response, Johnson & Johnson rushed to have tests performed to prove it products are free of any asbestos contamination. The Wall Street Journal reported on November 17, 2019, that two independent laboratories found no evidence of asbestos contamination in the lot of baby powder recalled by the Food and Drug Administration in October of 2019.
RJ Lee Group from Pennsylvania was one of the laboratories hired by Johnson & Johnson. The lab reported that they initially found asbestos in the talcum powder sample but has since recanted. Evidence reveals that the rushed testing and urgency may have negatively impacted the results. However, RJ Lee Group was not able to explain the discrepancy in the results.
The lab harshly blamed Johnson & Johnson’s demand for a quick turnaround. The Wall Street Journal received a letter from Johnson & Johnson, stating, “…the sample had been contaminated by the air-conditioning unit inside the testing room.” The lab deviated from its normal testing techniques and conducted the tests in a different environment. The lab used to test the talc was a lab that is usually reserved for criminal investigations to examine gunshot residue. It was also discovered that lab workers brought in an air-conditioning unit that contained traces of asbestos that contaminated the environment.
The results are incredibly controversial, and it is unclear whether or not Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder is truly contaminated with asbestos. If it is conclusive that the talcum powder is contaminated, the exposure to asbestos can lead to mesothelioma. RJ Lee Group conducted follow-up tests that did not show asbestos contamination in the samples tested by the Food and Drug Administration. Bureau Veritas North America Inc., the other independent laboratory, did not find any contamination in the talc they tested.
The Food and Drug Administration’s testing was performed by AMA Analytical Services Inc. using the same industry standard, electron-microscopy technique. According to a statement from the Food and Drug Administration to the Wall Street Journal, “…different samples from the same bottle could produce different results because the contamination might not be uniform.” The Food and Drug Administration, along with other experts in the field, have expressed that talc can easily be contaminated with asbestos from naturally occurring minerals that are usually close to the earth’s surface.
Johnson & Johnson persists that their products are safe for use. On October 29, 2019, Johnson & Johnson issued a press release conveying the consistent asbestos-free results. Johnson & Johnson further claimed that it =performed 15 tests of samples procured from the bottle tested by the Food and Drug Administration. Johnson & Johnson also contends that it conducted 48 new lab tests from the recalled lot that have all confirmed that the product did not contain asbestos.
Johnson & Johnson’s press release expressed, “[r]igorous and third-party testing confirms there is no asbestos in Johnson’s Baby Powder…we stand by the safety of our product.” and that they have “full confidence it did not contain asbestos.”
Ongoing litigation with Johnson & Johnson
The ongoing controversy of whether or not Johnson & Johnson’s products contain asbestos has sparked over 16,000 lawsuits. The lawsuits claim that the product’s asbestoses contamination has caused ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. This is especially significant for mesothelioma because the only known cause of the disease is exposure to asbestos.
A federal judge over many of the talc lawsuits is expected to issue a ruling next month on the validity of the ongoing conflicting lab reports on asbestos-tainted talc. The judge is also to issue an order on the admissibility of such evidence in court.
In June of 2019, a state jury in New York awarded $300 million in punitive damages and $25 million in compensatory damages to Donna Olson and her husband, who claimed Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder caused her to develop mesothelioma. Johnson & Johnson has appealed the jury’s verdict.
In July of 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice initiated a criminal investigation to figure out if Johnson & Johnson had misrepresented to the public that lied about the possible cancer risks and misled the public about asbestos fibers in its products.
The Hawaii Tribune-Herald published an article on November 21, 2019, about a Hawaiian woman’s lawsuit filed against Johnson & Johnson. Jacqueline Becker filed a civil lawsuit in Hawaii’s Honolulu circuit court, claiming that Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder caused her to be diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in February of 2019. She is now 64 years old and claims she regularly used Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder. According to the article, Ms. Becker’s attorneys argue that Johnson & Johnson has been, “…fighting these cases very hard and they have taken a very strong stance to say that there is not and never has been asbestos as a contaminant in their baby powder, and all the tests that seem to show asbestos are all wrong. I think that becomes more difficult for them to do in the face of the FDA test last month.”
The Future of Johnson & Johnson and Mesothelioma Diagnoses
The conflicting reports of Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder containing asbestos have been at issue for decades. The reports are inconsistent and convoluted. It does not seem too farfetched that more mesothelioma diagnoses are starting to appear because it can take several decades to surface.
If you or a loved one have used talcum powder or any other consumer product that may have contained asbestos, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional. Mesothelioma patients who have used such products that are suspected to be contaminated should also seek legal advice to evaluate your potential rights and remedies.