Johnson & Johnson knew for decades there was asbestos in its baby powder says new Reuters investigation

The company "fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public."

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In a new investigation published late last week, Reuters has revealed that Johnson & Johnson’s baby powders sometimes tested positive for asbestos and the company failed to disclose this information to regulators or the public.

Reuters examined thousands of documents from over 11,000 plaintiffs that have claimed Johnson and Johnson’s talc caused their cancers. These documents, dated form years 1971 to the early 2000s, reveal that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors, and lawyers all knew about the test results and “fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.”

The Reuters investigation publishes information from documents that were previously shielded from the public. The documents were designated “confidential” when handed over at trial.

The earliest mentions of asbestos in J&J talc are back in 1957 and 1958, where a consulting lab found “fibrous and acicular tremolite” contaminants, which is one of the six minerals that in their naturally occurring fibrous form are classified as asbestos. Similar findings were found over the years all the way into the early 2000s, reported by scientists at J&J, outside labs and J&J’s supplier. The reports “identify contaminants in talc and finished powder products as asbestos or describe them in terms typically applied to asbestos, such as “fiberform” and “rods.”

J&J assured regulators in 1976 that no asbestos was “detected in any sample” of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973, yet failed to disclose that at least three tears by three different lbs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in its talc. One of these tests found levels that were “rather high.”

While most J&J asbestos test results did not find asbestos, Reuters notes that the company has had limitations that allow trace contaminants to go “undetected – and only a tiny fraction of the company’s talc is tested.”

Asbestos is defined as “the name given to six minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers,” and has been used in construction, automotive, and shipbuilding activities since the 1800s. The World Health Organization recognizes no safe level of exposure to asbestos and while most people that are exposed to asbestos do not develop cancer, for some even small amounts can trigger illness years later. WHO states that “all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs).”

Many cases against J&J from plaintiffs claiming their products caused their illness have been unsuccessful however, a watershed victory in St. Louis had “22 plaintiffs [that] were the first to succeed with a claim that asbestos-tainted Baby Powder and Shower to Shower talc, a longtime brand the company sold in 2012, caused ovarian cancer, which is much more common than mesothelioma. The jury awarded them $4.69 billion in damages. Most of the talc cases have been brought by women with ovarian cancer who say they regularly used J&J talc products as a perineal antiperspirant and deodorant.”

J&J continues to insist that its products are safe and have vowed to appeal all verdicts against them. In an email to Reuters, Ernie Knewitz, vice president of global media relations, stated:

Plaintiffs attorneys out for personal financial gain are distorting historical documents and intentionally creating confusion in the courtroom and in the media … This is all a calculated attempt to distract from the fact that thousands of independent tests prove our talc does not contain asbestos or cause cancer. Any suggestion that Johnson & Johnson knew or hid information about the safety of talc is false.

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