Oh how the corporations care about you & your babies. Not! …
Johnson & Johnson has long been the undisputed leader in baby product sales and has always tried to portray itself as a gentle, caring company. But a startling new report by Reuters suggests otherwise. The report indicates that small amounts of asbestos have been lurking in some of the company’s talc — the substance that makes baby powder powdery — going back to the 1970s. The company allegedly didn’t openly communicate results, and at times purposely obfuscated them, to both consumers and the Food and Drug Administration.
The information Reuters examined came to light this past summer. Johnson & Johnson was sued by 22 women who claimed the company’s baby powder caused their ovarian cancer, resulting in a $4.7 billion verdict against the company. As a result, old company documents revealing the deception were made public. On Friday, this news tanked the company’s stock, which dropped 11 percent.
This is just the latest in a string of bad news for the company, which has already been battling lawsuits and terrible PR. In recent years, Johnson & Johnson faced some backlash after it was discovered that its iconic golden baby shampoo contained formaldehyde-releasing ingredients. The company removed those chemicals (although they’re probably safe in the amount present in personal care products) and even recently overhauled its entire baby range to compete with smaller brands that have embraced so-called “clean” ingredients.
Most recently, it’s been battling lawsuit after lawsuit alleging that talc use caused plaintiffs’ cancers. Notably, some evidence from a 2016 lawsuit suggested that in the early ’90s, the company targeted black and Hispanic women, who already used the powder in the genital area in higher numbers than white women, for “more aggressive marketing.” There are another 11,700 plaintiffs lined up for cases against J&J, all related to talc.
J&J has vehemently denied that its talc contained asbestos throughout these suits. The link between ovarian cancer and talc is not conclusive, and it’s still not clear that the tiny amounts of asbestos reported in J&J’s past testing were capable of causing the cancers in the past and current lawsuits. But what’s not in dispute is that asbestos is indeed a well-established carcinogen.
The negative publicity from the high legal payouts and Reuters’s seemingly damning evidence of sneaky behavior from the company in the past has brought the issue of hygiene product safety and consumer trust to the forefront. The FDA has very little regulatory power over hygiene products and cosmetics. But this news, which comes at a time when consumer demand is putting a lot of pressure on legislators, may finally mean that laws change.
Baby powder and asbestos
Talc is a natural mineral that is mined from the earth. It’s not totally certain that talc, and its end product talcum powder, is safe even in its purest form. In some cases, it can also be contaminated with asbestos. Asbestos — a category of fibrous minerals known to cause cancer — often shows up in the same mines where talc is, causing contamination.
Health organizations globally recognize asbestos as a carcinogen, causing cancers like mesothelioma and ovarian cancer, especially among people like miners, construction workers, and factory employees who have been exposed to it in large quantities. It gets fuzzier when trying to determine exactly how much exposure is required to actually cause cancer; no one knows how little is enough to set off the very complex chain of events that lead to the disease.
The Reuters report indicates that it’s probably “impossible” to completely purify mined talc and definitely impossible to test for asbestos thoroughly and conclusively in all commercial batches. This all adds up to a recipe for consumer concern — and lawsuits.
The Reuters article, by Lisa Girion, focuses heavily on reports and testing that J&J did in the 1970s on both its baby powder and its Shower to Shower product that was marketed to adults. It weaves a tale of how the company appears to have misled consumers and even the FDA after scientists figured out that asbestos was harmful and that it was showing up in talc samples. The FDA at one point in the ’70s was determining whether and how to regulate it. Girion writes:
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. … Nor did the company 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. “Some of them seem rather high,” the private lab wrote in its cover letter.