Previously closely guarded documents, including company memos and lab test results, reveal that Johnson & Johnson has known about trace amounts of asbestos in its baby powder products since the 1970s—and worked hard to keep the findings a secret from the public for just as long—according to a new report from Reuters.
In a story published Friday, Reuters reports that 11,700 plaintiffs in various lawsuits have claimed Johnson & Johnson’s talc causes cancer, including ovarian cancer. The company has long denied these claims. However, Reuters states that it has reviewed company and court documents that show Johnson & Johnson’s talc products have tested positive for varying amounts of asbestos for decades.
Not only did Johnson & Johnson know about the asbestos, Reuters reports, but “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.” Reuters found that, in 1976, the company did not tell the Food & Drug Administration that asbestos had been found in its talc, saying “that no asbestos was ‘detected in any sample’ of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973"—when in fact “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.’”
Women have been suing Johnson & Johnson over cancers allegedly caused by their talc products for decades: In July 2018, a St. Louis jury ruled that Johnson & Johnson owed $4.6 billion to 22 plaintiffs who claimed its talc products caused ovarian cancer. (In a statement to Reuters, Johnson & Johnson said: “Plaintiffs’ attorneys out for personal financial gain are distorting historical documents and intentionally creating confusion in the courtroom and in the media.”)
Asbestos has been “classified as a known human carcinogen” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. And according to the National Institute of Health, “investigators have found asbestos-related diseases in individuals with only brief exposures.” Reuters puts it this way: “even small amounts of asbestos are enough to trigger the disease years later. Just how small hasn’t been established.”