One attorney said 1970s memos that have surfaced due to recent lawsuits are “on par with key docs uncovered in the tobacco litigation.”

Reuters investigation published Friday charges that Johnson & Johnson, a multi-billion dollar company known for its healthcare products, knew for decades that its iconic talcum baby powder “was sometimes tainted with carcinogenic asbestos,” but concealed the information from regulators and the public.

Asbestos, “the name given to six minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers,” has been used in North America’s automotive, construction, and shipbuilding industries since the late 1800s, according to the National Cancer Institute. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that “all types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs).”

Because asbestos sometimes occurs in the earth along with talc, contamination is possible. Reuters—along with attorneys for more than 11,000 plaintiffs currently suing Johnson & Johnson, claiming the company’s products caused their cancer—examined memos, internal reports, and other confidential documents as well as deposition and trial testimony.

That mountain of evidence, according to Reuters, revealed

that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company 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.

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.

While, over the past two decades, some legal challenges claiming that Johnson & Johnson products were tainted with asbestos and caused cancer have been unsuccessful, three recent developments seem to signal a shift. A pair of cases in New Jersey and California saw significant awards for mesothelioma patients, and a “watershed” verdict in St. Louis expanded the company’s potential liability.

Outlining the St. Louis case, Reuters explained:

The 22 plaintiffs were the first to succeed with a claim that asbestos-tainted Baby Powder and Shower to Shower talc, a longtime brand the company sold in 2012, caused ovarian cancer, which is much more common than mesothelioma. The jury awarded them $4.69 billion in damages. Most of the talc cases have been brought by women with ovarian cancer who say they regularly used J&J talc products as a perineal antiperspirant and deodorant.

“When people really understand what’s going on,” said Mark Lanier, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs, “I think it increases J&J’s exposure a thousand-fold.”

Johnson & Johnson, as Reuters noted, “has dominated the talc powder market for more than 100 years, its sales outpacing those of all competitors combined… And while talc products contributed just $420 million to J&J’s $76.5 billion in revenue last year, Baby Powder is considered an essential facet of the healthcare-products maker’s carefully tended image as a caring company—a ‘sacred cow,’ as one 2003 internal email put it.”

Another attorney who’s not tied to the cases against Johnson & Johnson concluded on Twitter that the 1970s memos mentioned in Reuters‘ report are “on par with key docs uncovered in the tobacco litigation.”

Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, has vowed to appeal all verdicts against it and maintains that its products are safe. The company’s vice president of global media relations, Ernie Knewitz, wrote in an email to Reuters:

Plaintiffs attorneys out for personal financial gain are distorting historical documents and intentionally creating confusion in the courtroom and in the media… 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 Johnson & Johnson knew or hid information about the safety of talc is false.

Following the report, the publicly traded company’s shares plummeted by more than 11 percent.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Oh my goodness and the way Zambian mothers religiously use johnsons baby powder !! These cooperate companies are not good and never have people’s health at heart. In future we will be hearing this about GMO foods and GMO seeds which our government is embracing with 2 hands. Ever wondered why cancer is on the increase in our country?

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    • Sorry but there’s asbestos everywhere in Zambia. There’s asbestos roofing in all the old council and government house’s and no one cares. In fact all the J&J products with asbestos should now be exported to Africa because African countries don’t care! Only LPM cared about GMO and all carcinogens.Lungu just cares about money in his pocket.

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    • Is the little boy still using it? The UNDER FIVE nurse told him to continue, it has been very helpful. MUTINTA must be using it when changing Larry’s diapers too. It smells good.

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  2. I believe J&J statement below, some clever lawyers just want to benefit from this. If it was true the cancer prevalence in most of us who grew up using these products would have been very high. The linkage to cancer is very week.

    “Plaintiffs attorneys out for personal financial gain are distorting historical documents and intentionally creating confusion in the courtroom and in the media… 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 Johnson & Johnson knew or hid information about the safety of talc is false.”

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    • Come again you believe a Global Multi National…I mean these are powerful organisations with their own lobbies and marketing budgets to put dwarf what you spend on health care by GRZ……you are truly gullible I bet you would believe Coke when they say their cola is very healthy

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  3. @Jerry Mashamba you’re right, they is just some clever lawyering on the plaintiffs’ side. J&J produces talcum powder and so do hundreds of other companies worldwide. Are people going to sue each and every company out there that sells talcum based powder? If various govt and Orgs can conclusively find evidence that links cancers use of talcum powder (not just J&Js), the it’s talcum powder and it’s use that should face a ban.

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    • So what if so many companies produce talcum powder that doesn’t make it safe…even toothpaste colgate is not safe as fluoride is harmful to our health you will dispute that…most people in the know are avoid it all together and opting for herbal and coal based toothpaste.

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    • Even brushing with a piece of mango branch is more healthy than Colgate…do you know that charcoal is even better and does a far better job!!

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    • @JayJay I didn’t say it’s safe, I asked why can’t govts worldwide ban it if there is irrefutable evidence that it’s doing a lot of harm? Despite what you may think, some govts around the world are more powerful than even the biggest conglomerates.
      The thing we forget sometimes is we’re dealing with statistics whose pool of Data is/was only the US. Also I’m not entirely dismissing that it may not be harmful.

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    • @3.1 & 3.2, Is MUTINTA using Talcum powder or Johnson’s on you? Please don’t be sore! That careless public release may be unhealthy for you. HaMENTAL.

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  4. This is only a tip of the iceberg if you ask me. There are more hazardous substances in most of the food and drinks we consume that are neatly concealed behind artificial ingredients. Watch out if you like isotonic and energy drinks.

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