Imerys is a multinational company that mines and processes specialty minerals. Imerys Talc America and two of its North American subsidiaries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2019, seeking protection from lawsuits alleging asbestos in its talc caused cancer.
Imerys started out in 1880 as a French mining company called Société Le Nickel. Over the next century, it grew through acquisitions and mergers with other mining companies.
By the 1970s, it began to diversify further and grow into a major multinational company under the name Imetal.
In 1999, the company changed its name again to Imerys and refocused on its core business of supplying specialty minerals. Today, Imerys operates hundreds of industrial sites across 50 countries around the world.
Imerys did not play a major role in the asbestos industry during the 20th century. Rather, the company’s liability for asbestos exposure came with its acquisition of the Luzenac Group, a major talc supplier.
Asbestos in Luzenac Group Talc
Imerys Talc is liable for diseases caused by asbestos-contaminated talc mined by the Luzenac Group during the 20th century. Imerys disputes its talc has ever caused cancer, but recent lawsuits involving the company have been successful.
The Luzenac Group was named after the French village where it was founded in the 1840s. The nearby mine at Trimouns has since become one of the world’s largest talc-mining operations.
In 1988, the company was bought by the mining group Rio Tinto. It was then sold to Imerys in 2011, and the division is now known as Imerys Talc.
The Hidden Dangers of Talc
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Today, Imerys Talc is a leading talc producer, supplying about 15 percent of the world’s talc. It operates mines and processing facilities in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. Its open-cast mine in Yellowstone, Montana, is the largest talc operation in the United States.
Talc is the softest naturally occurring mineral, and it has a variety of uses. Manufacturers use it in paper, paints, plastics, ceramics and many types of building materials. Talc is also an ingredient in some fertilizers and pesticides.
Perfumed talcum powder is a common personal hygiene product, and talc is added to many cosmetics. Purified talc is used in pharmaceuticals and certain medical procedures.
However, in recent years it has come to light that talcum powder is often contaminated with asbestos.
Talc and asbestos often occur in the same geological formations together. Before the dangers of asbestos were publicly revealed, many companies neglected to check for asbestos in talcum powder products.
Asbestos-contaminated talc dust also puts miners and factory workers at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.
Lawsuits and Bankruptcy
Imerys Talc America and two of its subsidiaries, Imerys Talc Vermont and Imerys Canada Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Feb. 13, 2019, amid mounting asbestos-related lawsuits against the companies.
At the time of the filing, Imerys was facing more than 14,000 claims in courts across the U.S. regarding asbestos-contaminated talc. Many of the lawsuits include consumer goods giant Johnson & Johnson, which uses Imerys talc in its iconic Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products.
Most of the claims involve women who allege the talc caused their ovarian cancer. Only a small percentage of lawsuits involve mesothelioma cases linked to contaminated talc.
Imerys Talc America President Giorgio La Motta said his companies would continue to operate as usual through the bankruptcy process. The company is expected to set up a trust fund to handle current and future claims.
“After carefully evaluating all possible options, we determined pursuing Chapter 11 protection is the best course of action to address our historic talc-related liabilities and position the companies for continued growth,” La Motta said in a statement.
Mesothelioma Lawsuits Against Imerys
- In 2018, a jury in New Jersey awarded a total of $117 million to Stephen Lanzo III and his wife. Lanzo had developed mesothelioma after using Johnson & Johnson’s Shower to Shower and Baby Powder products for more than 30 years. As the supplier of the talc used, Imerys was ordered to pay $36 million of the damages.
- Later that year, Imerys settled a lawsuit filed by 22 women with ovarian cancer, another disease linked to asbestos exposure. The women blamed their diagnosis on baby powder sold by Johnson & Johnson and made from talc supplied by Imerys. The settlement reportedly included a payment of at least $5 million.
- In 2017, a California jury awarded $22 million to the family of Richard Booker. He died of mesothelioma the year before. Booker developed the cancer because of exposure to asbestos-contaminated talc used at the paint factories where he worked. Imerys shared part of the responsibility for supplying the talc.
5 Cited Article Sources
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Retrieved from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-13/imerys-sa-unit-seeks-bankruptcy-protection-over-talc-lawsuits
Fisk, M., & Feeley, J. (2018, June 3). Imerys Unit Said to Settle Talc Case for at Least $5 Million
Retrieved from: https://www.bloombergquint.com/business/2018/06/01/imerys-unit-said-to-settle-talc-claims-for-at-least-5-million
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Last Modified February 18, 2019