For more than a century, Johnson & Johnson has promoted its Johnson’s Baby Powder as being safe enough for infants. Yet documents show that the consumer health care giant knew for decades that its talcum powder products posed cancer risks to consumers.
In 2013, Johnson & Johnson faced its first trial alleging its talcum powder products can cause cancer. Deane Berg sued the company, claiming that regular use of Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower body powder on her genitals – as advertised by the company for feminine hygiene – caused her to develop ovarian cancer. In October 2013, a federal Jury in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, did not award Berg damages. But jurors did find that Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products were a factor in her developing cancer.
Berg’s case exposed the dangers and conspiracy behind talcum powder exposure, and paved the way for thousands of women to bring claims against Johnson & Johnson, its talc supplier Imeys Talc America, and the national trade association Personal Care Products Council, for deceiving them about the risks.
The lawsuit also opened the door for similar lawsuits that allege Johnson & Johnson’s talc is contaminated with asbestos and contributes to the development of mesothelioma, a rare but deadly form of cancer.
The trials have not only resulted in multimillion-dollar verdicts for victims of talc exposure, they have revealed the lengths Johnson & Johnson went to in order to cover up evidence that its talcum powder products were dangerous to consumers.
Talc and Ovarian Cancer
During their investigation into cases alleging ovarian cancer risk, plaintiffs’ attorneys began to uncover damning evidence of a decades-long cover-up by Johnson & Johnson and Imerys to conceal the risks of ovarian cancer with their talc-containing products. Ovarian cancer is the most deadly gynecological cancer.
In 1982, Harvard Cancer Center’s Dr. Daniel Cramer published a study titled “Ovarian Cancer and Talc – A Case-Control Study,” that showed a 92 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer in women who used talcum powder on their genitals for feminine hygiene. An earlier study suggested that talc particles can travel through the vagina and the fallopian tubes, and embed in and inflame the ovaries, creating a hotbed for cancerous growth. Dr. Cramer shared his findings with Johnson & Johnson, but the company refused to remove the talc from its products or to warn women of this risk.
In 1997, Dr. Alfred Wehner was hired by Johnson & Johnson and Imerys to evaluate studies linking genital use of talcum powder to ovarian cancer. In a letter to Johnson & Johnson’s Preclinical Toxicology Department, Dr. Wehner advised that the company’s statement that talc presents no significant risk of cancer was “outright false,” and warned company executives that to continue to deny scientific research to the contrary put the company at risk of being “perceived by the public like it perceives the cigarette industry: denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”
In 2006, Imerys added a warning to its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that “perineal use of talc-based body powder is possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The MSDS is a document that provides health and safety information about products or materials that are classified as hazardous substances or dangerous goods, and is intended to warn manufacturers about potential health risks to workers who handle the raw materials. Of course, the warning wasn’t relevant to workers, but it would be to consumers who ultimately used the products.
Still, Johnson & Johnson refused to warn the public.
Experts estimate that more than 100,000 women have died from ovarian cancer as a result of talc exposure.
Talc and Mesothelioma
Talc is a naturally occurring mineral mined from the earth. It can be found in close proximity to other naturally occurring minerals including asbestos, a known carcinogen as classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IAC), an agency of the World Health Organization. The IARC further states on its website that “mineral substances (e.g. talc or vermiculite) that contain asbestos should also be regarded as carcinogenic to humans.”
Asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, an aggressive type of cancer that forms in the lining of the lungs and other internal organs. The disease can take 10 to 50 years to develop, and usually proves deadly 12 to 24 months after diagnosis.
Johnson & Johnson has repeatedly denied that its talc contains asbestos.
According to documents unsealed during a trial filed on behalf of more than 50 women in St. Louis alleging Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products caused their ovarian cancer, the company knew for decades that its talc was laced with cancer-causing asbestos.
One such document showed that, in May 1974, an official at Johnson & Johnson’s Windsor Materials talc mine in Vermont recommended “the use of citric acid in the depression of chrysotile asbestos” from talc extracted from the site. “The use of these systems is strongly urged by this writer to provide protection against what are currently considered to be materials presenting a severe health hazard and are potentially present in all talc ores in use at this time,” the mine’s director of research and development wrote.
A 1973 report by a Johnson & Johnson official stated that Johnson’s Baby Powder “contains talc fragments classifiable as fiber,” and that “sub-trace quantities of” two types of asbestos “are identifiable and these might be classified as asbestos fiber.” As a result of these findings, the official suggested that Johnson & Johnson replace its talcum powder with cornstarch. The company refused.
A year later, owners of the Val Chisone mine near Turin, Italy produced a booklet to market the site. Johnson & Johnson, which used some Val Chisone talc in its products, reportedly urged the mine to stop the distribution of the booklet because it revealed that trace amounts of asbestos were discovered in the talc mined there. Mine officials agreed to stop distributing English-language versions of the booklet until Johnson & Johnson could rewrite it.
Dr. Barry Castleman, a consultant on the health effects of asbestos in building materials, wrote Johnson & Johnson in 1972 cautioning that asbestos in talc-containing products used by consumers could cause serious health problems. Castleman said the company responded by saying that there was no asbestos in its talc.
In May, California jurors who awarded $21.7 million in compensatory damages to a woman who claimed that the talc in Johnson & Johnson’s products was contaminated with asbestos and contributed to her developing mesothelioma, asked the court if instead of punitive damages, they could punish the company by requiring it to place cancer warnings on its talcum powder products. The court said jurors did not have that authority. As a result, the jury added $4 million of punitive damages to the verdict, bringing the award to $25.7 million.
In 2017, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized thousands of ovarian cancer claims against Johnson & Johnson, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., Imerys Talc America, and the national trade association Personal Care Products Council. The cases were consolidated in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, the location of Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters. The multidistrict litigation (MDL), overseen by U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson, has since grown to more than 6,500 cases.
Johnson & Johnson and Imerys also face a growing number of lawsuits alleging regular use of talcum powder products contributed to mesothelioma.