Established in 1886, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has been the preeminent leader in baby care products for well over 100 years. However, the company has been faced with several lawsuits and in July 2018, a jury awarded $4.89 billion to women who claimed that asbestos in the company’s baby powder caused their ovarian cancer. This decision was upheld in December 2018. However, this would not be the only headlines J&J made. On December 14, 2018, Reuters broke a major story.
Reuters examined documents that came to light as a result of the recent lawsuits and found that J&J knew as far back as 1971 that some lab tests in the U.S. showed positive results for asbestos in their baby powders and raw talc.
Dropped Lawsuit from 1999
Darlene Coker pursued one of the first lawsuits against J&J claiming that the company’s baby powder caused her mesothelioma. It is known that talc and asbestos are often naturally found in the same mining areas, thus there is a chance for cross contamination.
In response to the lawsuit, J&J denied that its baby powder contained asbestos. In addition, the company did not have to turn over lab test results or internal documentation. As a result, Coker had to drop her lawsuit in 1999. However, J&J did have to turn over lab test results and internal company documentation in the recent lawsuits. This documentation led to the 2018 rulings and the discovery of how long J&J knew about asbestos in its talc.
Lab Results Dating Back to as early as 1957
According to Reuters, court documents revealed that in 1957 and 1958, a consulting lab found contaminants in J&J’s Italian supplier’s talc that were described as fibrous and “acicular” tremolite. Tremolite is a mineral that contains asbestos. These results were not an anomaly. Test performed by J&J and others had similar findings up to the early 2000s.
Examination of the lawsuit documents also found that J&J’s raw talc and baby powders sometimes tested positive in lab tests performed between 1971 and the early 2000s. Documents also show that company executives and its legal and scientific teams were trying to figure out how to address the problem, but they did not disclose the results to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
Johnson & Johnson was also effective in influencing U.S. regulators who were considering limiting the use of asbestos in cosmetic products and performing more scientific research on the health effects of talc. The FDA was considering these limits and research, but J&J was able to assure the FDA that asbestos was not found in any of its samples from the talc the company produced from December 1972 to October 1973. This information was untrue and contrary to documentation that showed that three tests were performed between 1972 to 1975 and three different labs found asbestos in J&J’s talc.
Johnson & Johnson’s Defense
Johnson & Johnson has maintained that its talc is safe to use and pointed to juror confusion. In addition, J&J noted that plaintiffs’ attorneys were out for personal gain. The company’s primary counsel stated that the findings in the Reuters report are “false and misleading” and that test results found in court documents were outlier results.
When Johnson & Johnson lost in the July 2018 lawsuit, the Chairman and CEO stated that the company was confident their products do not contain asbestos. However, asbestos can remain latent for decades. So, while it is arguable to say the products may be safe now, that may not have been the case decades ago.