Once reputed children’s healthcare company, Johnson & Johnson, found itself in a new chapter of an old controversy when a Reuters report claimed that the company had known about asbestos content in their flagship baby powder for at least forty years. The well-established carcinogen that can exist underground near talc has been a concern inside the company for decades, claimed Reuters, adding that there was evidence to suggest that senior management actively hid that knowledge from being made public.
Health organisations globally agree that asbestos causes cancers such as mesothelioma and ovarian cancer, especially among miners, construction workers, and factory employees exposed to it in large quantities. The Reuters report further indicated that it’s probably “impossible” to completely purify mined talc.
For a brand built on trustworthiness and health, and whose products deal directly with infants, the recent revelation came as a massive shock to investors and consumers alike. J&J stocks tanked 11 per cent on Friday, immediately after the publication of the report.
In a memo dating back to 1971, an executive at Johnson & Johnson recommended upgrading the company’s quality control of talc after finding that the main ingredient in its bestselling baby powder could potentially be contaminated by asbestos. Two years later, another executive flagged the issue, asking the company to pay serious attention to the smoking gun. Numerous others expressed fear regarding the potential impact of this revelation: government ban on a talc, a safety hazard for children, and the loss of public goodwill.
Documents from the past forty years suggest that the management were trying to effectively discredit all research suggesting that powder may be contaminated while pulling all administrative strings to make sure that these unfavourable reports were buried. For instance, J&J didn’t tell the FDA about a 1974 test by a professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire that turned up asbestos in talc from J&J. The company did not tell the FDA about a 1975 report from its longtime lab that found particles identified as “asbestos fibers” in five of 17 samples of talc from the chief source mine for Baby Powder either. “Some of them seem rather high,” the private lab wrote in its cover letter.
Instead, J&J insisted that its products were safe, finally convincing FDA and subsequently consumers that the products could be considered asbestos-free.
J&J’s history of lawsuits
This deliberate attempt at obfuscation gives a long-running battle over Johnson’s Baby Powder a new legal edge, offering plaintiffs further grounds to sue the company already facing nearly 12,000 lawsuits across the US.
A 2016 lawsuit further established a sinister connection between the company’s targeted “aggressive marketing” for black and Hispanic women in the 90s, who used the powder in the genital area in higher numbers than white women, and rising cases of ovarian cancer among people of colour.
This year, a jury in St. Louis awarded $4.69 billion to a group of women with ovarian cancer, one of the largest personal injury verdicts ever. The link between asbestos and ovarian cancer was first reported in 1958, and in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer said it was a cause.
A couple of other cases, where victims with mesothelioma sued J&J, also went in their favour after the court established that the condition is associated with asbestos. A cancer of the lining of internal organs, mesothelioma takes decades to appear after exposure.
Meanwhile, the defence for the company disposed of the claims as “junk science”, even appealing some of the guilty verdicts. “Johnson & Johnson’s talc has been tested by scientists at multiple entities since the early 1970s up to the present,” one of them said, adding, “None of these routine tests over the past 50 years detected the presence of asbestos.”
In response to the Reuters article, the company released a lengthy statement on its website, writing that “the Reuters article is one-sided, false and inflammatory” and a “conspiracy theory”. “Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder is safe and asbestos-free. Studies of more than 100,000 men and women show that talc does not cause cancer or asbestos-related disease,” it read, further accusing the news agency of not considering recent testing and cooperation with governing bodies.
The American Cancer Society changed the wording on its website on talc, which used to read, “All talcum products used in homes have been asbestos-free since the 1970s.” It now reads that products produced in the US “should be free from detectable amounts of asbestos”. The ACS apparently amended the language after Reuters reached out to the organisation with the evidence it had uncovered for this story.
There is no telling if J&J will take the powder off the market anytime soon. Although the powder accounts for a minuscule portion of the company’s profits, it is considered to be a “sacred cow” and its fragrance is recognisable anywhere in the world. Besides being billed as gentle for baby skin, the powder is also used widely as a feminine hygiene product. Similar concerns have been raised with other talcum powders by companies such as Revlon and Maybelline.
Meanwhile, around 11,700 plaintiffs are currently lined up to settle the score against a brand that has long prided itself for putting customers first. But the entire sage also goes on to show how limited the US Food and Drugs Administration’s regulatory power really is, when it comes to hygiene products and cosmetics. But with consumer concern putting an increasing pressure on legislators to bring about stricter legislations and empower the FDA, a bill has been introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) to that effect.
Meanwhile, for the Indian market where talcum powder is a necessary FMCG, especially during summers, the health impact resulting from such extensive usage is tantamount to severe damages. Advertisements must be modified to include appropriate warning messages so that users are at least aware that talc is never entirely free of asbestos.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.