An explosive new report by Reuters released Friday may upturn the narrative surrounding the potential cancer risks of talcum powder. According to the report, Johnson & Johnson—the makers of the most popular consumer talc product, Baby Powder—knew for decades that its products at times contained carcinogenic asbestos, but did everything possible to keep its findings shrouded from the public and even health officials.
The report’s allegations are sourced from thousands of pages worth of internal company documents, according to Reuters, which the news agency has also made available to the public. Many of the documents were obtained during the course of legal battles waged against Johnson & Johnson over the years by customers alleging its products had caused their cancers; some were previously reported on by various journalists and news organizations.
Collectively, the documents seem to paint a damning picture of the company’s actions—and inaction—surrounding its products.
Talc is a soft white clay pulled up from the earth in mines. In these mines, asbestos—a broad term for six kinds of minerals that can be found in long, thin fibers—is regularly found alongside deposits of talc. But for decades, the company assured the public and regulators that its products were free of asbestos, even as some internal and independent tests found otherwise, according to the report.
In 1976, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was weighing limits on asbestos in cosmetic talc products, J&J assured the regulator that no asbestos was “detected in any sample” of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973. It didn’t tell the agency that at least three tests by three different labs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in its talc – in one case at levels reported as “rather high.”
Reuters reports that the company was particularly sneaky in handling the first known lawsuit from a former customer, Darlene Coker, who alleged in 1997 that its products had caused her mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. According to the Reuters report, J&J successfully denied requests by Coker’s attorney to turn over internal documents that would have demonstrated the presence of asbestos in its mining operations and products (Coker’s lungs were shown to be loaded with the sort of asbestos often seen in workers who are exposed to talc in large quantities). Without the documents, Coker dropped the case in 1999 and died a decade later.
Since Coker’s failed lawsuit, there have been more than 11,000 plaintiffs who have alleged that J&J’s products caused their cancers, according to Reuters. Many of these lawsuits, which often did not assert that asbestos contamination might have been the major contributing factor, have similarly failed, but cases that have gone to trial have resulted in verdicts in favor of the plaintiff. Just this July, a Missouri jury ordered the company to pay $4.69 billion in damages to 22 women and their families. In 2017, however, a California judge reversed a $417 million verdict and ordered a new trial.
Health agencies have largely agreed with J&J in asserting that there is no clear link between consumer talcum powders and cancer, but the World Health Organization has long ruled that talc found with asbestos is a carcinogen.
In response to Reuters, a company spokesperson for J&J told the news agency that its findings were false and misleading and that any positive tests were outliers. The company’s stock, however, fell by as much as 11 percent today after the report was published, according to CNN.
Gizmodo has reached out to J&J for comment and will update this post when we hear back.
Update 12/17/18 11:00 a.m.: A spokesperson for J&J emailed a statement responding to the Reuters report to Gizmodo, restating many of the objections it had previously made to Reuters. The company has also set up a website claiming to rebut the report. Below is the full statement.
“The Reuters article is one-sided, false and inflammatory. Simply put, the Reuters story is an absurd conspiracy theory, in that it apparently has spanned over 40 years, orchestrated among generations of global regulators, the world’s foremost scientists and universities, leading independent labs, and J&J employees themselves.
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. Thousands of independent tests by regulators and the world’s leading labs prove our baby powder has never contained asbestos.
J&J attorneys provided Reuters with hundreds of documents and directly responded to dozens of questions in order to correct misinformation and falsehoods. Notwithstanding this, Reuters repeatedly refused to meet with our representatives to review the facts and refused to incorporate much of the material we provided them.
The Reuters article is wrong in three key areas:
The article ignores that thousands of tests by J&J, regulators, leading independent labs, and academic institutions have repeatedly shown that our talc does not contain asbestos.
The article ignores that J&J has cooperated fully and openly with the U.S. FDA and other global regulators, providing them with all the information they requested over decades. We have also made our cosmetic talc mines and processed talc available to regulators for testing. Regulators have tested both, and they have always found our talc to be asbestos-free.
The article ignores that J&J has always used the most advanced testing methods available to confirm that our cosmetic talc does not contain asbestos. Every method available to test J&J’s talc for asbestos has been used by J&J, regulators, or independent experts, and all of these methods have all found that our cosmetic talc is asbestos-free.
Johnson & Johnson will continue to defend the safety of our product. For the truth and facts about talc, please go to www.factsabouttalc.com.”