Johnson & Johnson is facing thousands of lawsuits that its talc caused cancer. Its defense is firm on the safety and purity of its iconic product. But internal documents reviewed by Reuters show that the company's dust was at times contaminated with carcinogenic asbestos and that J&J was hiding that information from regulators and the public.
Darlene Coker knew he was dying. He just wanted to know why. He knew that his cancer, mesothelioma, had arisen in the delicate membrane that surrounded his lungs and other organs. He knew it was as rare as it was fatal and due to exposure to asbestos. He also knew that it mainly afflicted men who inhaled asbestos dust in mines and industries, such as those in shipbuilding, who used carcinogenic asbestos before its risks were understood.
Coker, 52, had raised two daughters and ran a massage school in Lumberton, a small town in eastern Texas. How had it been exposed to asbestos? "He wanted answers," said his daughter Cady Evans.
Coker fighting for every breath and suffering from crippling pain, she hired Herschel Hobson, a trained personal injury lawyer and together they came up with a suspicion: Johnson's Baby Powder, which Coker had used for his babies and which she sprinkled on herself, it could have caused her illness. Hobson knew that talc and asbestos are often found together as raw materials and that the extracted talc could be contaminated with the carcinogen. Coker is suing Johnson & Johnson, claiming "poisonous talc" was his killer.
Cady Evans (left) and her sister, Crystal Deckard, surrounded by photos of their mother, Darlene Coker, whose lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson 20 years ago was one of the first to argue that Johnson & Johnson's baby powder caused cancer. PHOTOS OF REUTERS / Mike Blake
Coker had no choice but to drop his lawsuit because in America, when you are the plaintiff, you have the burden of proof and they had no pova. It was 1999, and just two years later, the material sought by Coker and his lawyer was surfacing as J&J was forced to share thousands of pages of company notes, internal reports and other confidential documents, due to requests from others. 11.700 plaintiffs. The talc of J&J had caused them various types of cancer.
The British news agency Reuters has examined many of these documents, as well as testimony from procedural depositions, and it has been shown that from 1971 to the early 2000s the company's raw talc and finished powders were sometimes positive for small quantities. of asbestos and that the company's executives, my managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers, have always worked to resolve and address the problem for the problem without ever disclosing it to regulators or the public.
The documents also describe efforts to influence U.S. regulatory bodies' plans to limit asbestos in talc-based cosmetic products, and scientific research into the effects of talc on health. All efforts were successful given that both regulatory bodies and scientific research never dealt with the asbestos problem in talc.
Only a small part of the documents produced during the trials were made public, an agreement with J&J "protected" much of the documentation produced and in exchange the manufacturer agreed to deliver practically all the documentation. The documents you will see below are the first time they are made public.
The Reuters report
A new and explosive relationship recently published Reuters could overturn the narrative surrounding the potential cancer risks of Johnson & Johnson talc. According to relationship, Johnson & Johnson - the creators of the most famous consumer talc product, Baby Powder - had known for decades that its products sometimes contained carcinogenic asbestos, but did everything it could to keep its findings hidden from the public and even officials. health care.
The report's allegations come from thousands of pages of business documents interiors that the English news agency has made available to the public. Many documents have been obtained in legal battles against Johnson & Johnson over the years by plaintiffs who complained that their products had caused cancer.
The documents seem to paint an overwhelming image of the company's actions - and the inaction - surrounding its products.
Talc is a soft white clay extracted from mines. In these mines, asbestos - a broad term for six types of minerals that can be found in long, thin fibers - is found regularly along with talc deposits. But for decades the company has assured the public and regulators that its products were asbestos-free, although some internal and independent tests have proven otherwise.
In 1976, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was pondering the limits of asbestos in talc cosmetic products, J&J assured the regulator that no type of asbestos was "detected in any sample" of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973 by omitting the agency that at least three tests, from three different laboratories from 1972 to 1975, had found asbestos in talc - in one case at levels reported as "rather tall".
After Coker's failed lawsuit, there were more than 11.000 plaintiffs who claimed J & J's products caused cancer. Many of these lawsuits were lost in the same way as Coker, but many more verdicts they condemned the multinational. Just in July 2018, a Missouri jury has ordered the company to pay $ 4,69 billion in damages to 22 women and their families. In 2017, however, a California judge overturned a $ 417 million verdict ordered a new process.
In response to Reuters, a company spokesperson for J&J told the agency that its results (net of the fact that the results are the reading of J&J internal reports) were false and misleading and that any positive tests were anomalous. The company's sales, however, fell 11% after the report was released, according to CNN.
Evidence of what J&J knew only emerged during the litigation. Some attorneys knew from those earlier cases and that talc manufacturers were testing asbestos and began requesting J&J test documentation. What J&J produced in response to these requests allowed the lawyers to refine their argument: the culprit was not necessarily the talc itself, but also the asbestos in the talc. This claim, backed by decades of solid science showing that asbestos causes mesothelioma and is associated with ovarian cancers, has been the winning streak in the courts but the causes have not all been identical.
J&J, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, has dominated the talcum powder market for over 100 years. Its sales exceed those of all competitors combined, according to Euromonitor International data. While talc-based products contributed just $ 420 million to J&J total revenue, about $ 76,5 billion in 2017, Baby Powder is considered an essential aspect of the corporate image.
Gorsky's comment, echoed in countless J&J statements, misses a crux: Asbestos, like many environmental carcinogens, has a long latency period. Diagnosis usually comes years after the initial exposure - 20 years or more for mesothelioma. Today J&J talc products may be safe, but the talc in question in thousands of cases has been sold and used for the past 60 years.
In 1886, Robert Wood Johnson enlisted his younger brothers in an identical startup built around the motto "Safety First". Johnson's Baby powder originated from a row of medicated plasters, sticky rubber strips loaded with mustard and other home remedies. When customers complained of skin irritation, the brothers sent packets of talc.
Soon, mothers began applying talc to irritated skin from children's diapers. The Johnsons took note and added a fragrance that became one of the most recognizable in the world. They sifted the talcum powder in tin boxes and in 1893 began selling it as Johnson's baby powder.
In the late 50s, J&J discovered that talc from its main mining source for the US market in the Italian Alps contained tremolite. It is one of six minerals - along with chrysotile, actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite and crocidolite - found in nature as crystalline fibers known as asbestos, a recognized carcinogen. Some of these compounds, including tremolite, also occur as insignificant "non-asbestiform" rocks. Both forms often occur together and in talc deposits.
J&J's concern at the time was that contaminants would make the powder abrasive and they sent tons of Italian talcum powder to a private lab in Columbus, Ohio to find ways to improve the powder's appearance, feel, and purity by removing the "grain" as much as possible. In a pair of relationships of 1957 and 1958, the laboratory stated that talc contained "1% to 3% of contaminant", described as mostly fibrous and "acicular" tremolite.
Most of the authors of these and other documents cited in the various articles are dead. Sanchez, the geologist at RJ Lee, a company who agreed to witness 100 J&J trials, said: “The tremolite found decades ago in the company's talc, from Italy and later Vermont, was by no means a tremolite of asbestos. Rather cleavage fragments "from non-asbestiform tremolites".
The original J&J documents do not always make this distinction. In terms of health risk, regulators since the early 70s have treated the small, fiber-shaped particles of both forms equally. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, "does not distinguish between fibers and (comparable) fragments of cleavage." The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), although it eliminated non-fibrous forms of minerals from its definition of asbestos as early as 1992, still recommends that fiber-shaped fragments indistinguishable from asbestos be counted in exposure tests.
Never "100% clean
In 1972, OSHA, newly created by President Richard Nixon, issued its first rule setting limits on workplace exposure to asbestos dust.
At that point, a team from Mount Sinai Medical Center led by an eminent asbestos researcher, Irving Selikoff, had begun to consider talcum powders as a possible solution to the riddle: because tests on lung tissues were post mortem by New Yorkers who did not had they ever worked with asbestos to find signs of the mineral?
They shared their preliminary findings with New York's head of environmental protection, Jerome Kretchmer. On June 29, 1971, Kretchmer informed the Nixon administration and convened a press conference to announce that two unidentified cosmetic talc brands appeared to contain asbestos.
The FDA has opened an investigation. J&J released a declaration: "Our fifty years of research knowledge in this area indicates that there is no asbestos contained in the dust produced by Johnson & Johnson."
Later that year, another Mount Sinai researcher, mineralist Arthur Langer, told J&J in a letter that the team had found a "relatively small" amount of asbestos in Baby Powder.
ROCK STEADY: Dr Arthur Langer, who was part of a Mount Sinai team who was studying asbestos in talc in the 70s, claims to be aware of the presence of small quantities of asbestos in the Baby Powder. REUTERS / Julia Rendleman
SPEAKING THE WORD: Jerome Kretchmer was the head of environmental protection in New York City when he announced that the Mount Sinai research team had found what appeared to be asbestos in two unidentified cosmetic talc brands. REUTERS / Jeenah Moon
Langer, Selikoff and Kretchmer ended up on J&J's list of "antagonistic personalities" in a memorandum of November 29, 1972, which described Selikoff as the head of a "talc attack".
"I suppose I'm antagonistic," Langer told Reuters. However, in a subsequent 1976 J&J dust test, he found no asbestos - a announced result from Mount Sinai.
Selikoff died in 1992. Kretchmer said he recently read that a jury concluded that Baby Powder was contaminated with asbestos. "I said to myself, why did it take so long?"
In July 1971, J&J sent a delegation of scientists to Washington to speak with FDA officials examining asbestos in talcum powders. According to a report of the FDA meeting, J&J shared "evidence that their talc contains less than 1 asbestos".
Later that month, Wilson Nashed, one of the J&J scientists who visited FDA, said in a memo to the company's public relations department that J&J talc contained traces of "fibrous minerals (tremolite / actinolite)".
While the FDA continued to investigate asbestos in talc, J&J has sent dust samples to be tested in private and university laboratories. A private lab in Chicago found traces of tremolite quantities "not significant"in the samples, therefore," substantially free of asbestos material. "J&J reported this finding to the FDA in a letter saying that" the results clearly show "the samples tested" do not contain chrysotile asbestos. " told Reuters the tremolite found in the samples was not asbestos.