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December 18, 2018

Johnson & Johnson may have known its talc products contained asbestos, report suggests

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    Internal documents show Johnson & Johnson (J&J) knew the company's baby powder products sometimes were contaminated with carcinogenic asbestos, but the company concealed that information from regulators and the public, Reuters reports.

    J&J claims Baby Powder does not contain asbestos

    According to Reuters, J&J has faced lawsuits from individuals claiming they developed cancer from using the company's talc-based products. One of those suits was filed in 1999 by Darlene Coker, a Texas resident who developed mesothelioma, which has been linked to asbestos exposure. Coker's personal-injury lawyer, Herschel Hobson, eventually traced Coker's asbestos exposure to J&J's talc-based Baby Powder, because he "knew that talc and asbestos often occurred together in the earth, and that mined talc could be contaminated with the carcinogen," Reuters reports.

    Corker's lawsuit against J&J claimed that the "poisonous talc" used in the Baby Powder could lead to death. However, J&J denied the allegation, saying its Baby Powder did not contain asbestos.

    According to Reuters, "J&J was able to avoid handing over talc test results and other internal company records Hobson had requested to make the case against Baby Powder." Hobson said, as a result, Corker had to drop her lawsuit. "When you are the plaintiff, you have the burden of proof,” he said, adding, "We didn't have it."

    But over the years other plaintiffs have filed lawsuits against J&J, and lab tests requested by those plaintiffs have found asbestos in J&J talc-based products that were produced throughout the 1970s through the early 2000s. According to a court report filed in 2017, a lab found asbestos in a bottle of J&J's Shower to Shower talc that was produced in the 1990s. Reuters reports that a separate lab found asbestos in 50% of various samples of J&J Baby Powder that were found in plaintiffs' homes or were purchased on eBay. That lab also found asbestos in a bottle of Baby Powder that was produced in 1978 and had been held at J&J's corporate museum, Reuters reports.

    Some say documents show J&J knew Baby Powder contained asbestos

    According to Reuters, J&J in recent years "has been compelled to share thousands of pages of company memos, internal reports, and other confidential documents with lawyers for some of the 11,700 plaintiffs now claiming that the company's talc caused their cancers—including thousands of women with ovarian cancer." Reuters reviewed those internal documents, as well as depositions and trial testimony, and found evidence that J&J's raw talc and finished powders between 1971 and the early 2000s "sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos."

    Further, Reuters' investigation found J&J "executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors, and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public." For instance, Reuters found J&J in 1976 assured FDA that asbestos was not "detected in any sample" of the company's talc products produced between December 1972 and October 1973, even though at least three tests between 1972 and 1975 discovered asbestos in the company's talc.

    According to Reuters, "The documents also depict successful efforts to influence U.S. regulators' plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientific research on the health effects of talc."

    J&J says lawyers are 'distorting' documents

    For its part, J&J has continued to claim that tests over the years have shown its talc-products are safe, and has said allegations to the contrary are based on "'junk'" science, Reuters reports.

    Ernie Knewitz, J&J's vice president of global media relations, in an email to Reuters wrote, "Plaintiffs' attorneys out for personal financial gain are distorting historical documents and intentionally creating confusion in the courtroom and in the media." Knewitz continued, "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 [J&J] knew or hid information about the safety of talc is false."

    Peter Bicks, J&J's outside litigation counsel, in emails to Reuters called claims that J&J knew its products contained asbestos "false and misleading." He wrote, "The scientific consensus is that the talc used in talc-based body powders does not cause cancer, regardless of what is in that talc." Bicks continued, "This is true even if—and it does not—[J&J's] cosmetic talc had ever contained minute, undetectable amounts of asbestos."

    Bicks also dismissed the tests Reuters cited in its investigations as "outlier" results, Reuters reports. According to Reuters, J&J attorneys in court proceedings have said some tests that detected asbestos in the company's talc were conducted on talc intended for industrial use, while other tests detected "'background'" asbestos, which are "stray fibers that could have contaminated samples after floating into a mill or lab from a vehicle clutch or fraying insulation."

    J&J Chair and CEO Alex Gorsky in July told analysts, "We remain confident that our products do not contain asbestos."

    According to the Washington Post, J&J's stock price declined by 10% after Reuters released its investigation Friday (Girion, Reuters, 12/14; Wischhover, "The Goods," Vox, 12/14; Weixel, The Hill, 12/14; Rowland, Washington Post, 12/14).

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