Johnson & Johnson’s History and Connection to Asbestos
In the late 1800s, doctors began to realize the importance of using sterilized medical equipment to prevent infection. Johnson & Johnson was founded to meet this need. In 1894, the company launched one of its most iconic products: Johnson’s Baby Powder, made of crushed talc.
Today, Johnson & Johnson is one of the largest health care companies in the world. In 2018, the company reported more than $81.6 billion in worldwide sales. A year earlier, J&J began to face lawsuits over asbestos exposure from contaminated talcum baby powder.
In July 2019, the U.S. Justice Department launched a criminal investigation to determine if Johnson & Johnson purposefully misled the public about asbestos fibers in its talcum powder. Thousands of lawsuits have coincided with this latest probe of the pharmaceutical giant.
The justice department criminal investigation may take years to resolve and unfortunately, could delay settlement in pending civil claims.
Talcum Powder, Asbestos and Legal Troubles
For years, it’s been well known that many sources of talc are naturally contaminated with asbestos, which causes mesothelioma. The two minerals often occur in the same geological formations. Despite this, J&J did not focus on the issues of asbestos contamination in baby powder, which is of one of its flagship consumer products.
Asbestos-related diseases usually arise after years of regular exposure to the toxic mineral. Long-term exposure can occur with baby powder. Many people initially received talcum powder as babies to prevent diaper rash, and they continued using the product into adulthood.
Long-term use of asbestos-contaminated talcum powder can lead to cancer.
Baby Powder Asbestos Controversy
Asbestos is heat resistant and versatile, while talcum powder is valued as a natural lubricant that absorbs moisture. For much of the 20th century, companies promoted asbestos and talc as harmless, naturally occurring wonder minerals.
The asbestos industry manipulated medical research around its products and buried negative findings about asbestos and health as long as it could. The corporate cover-up of asbestos’ cancer-causing effects lasted well into the 1970s.
The talc industry played a role, too, by downplaying the danger of asbestos contamination in talc products.
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J&J Denied Talcum Powder-Cancer Connection
Johnson & Johnson has always publicly denied its talcum powder products cause cancer, much like many other companies accused of using asbestos in their products. However, documents unsealed in 2017 revealed J&J company executives were aware of asbestos liabilities as early as the 1970s.
Company reports highlighted the need to suppress concerns over asbestos contamination at talc mines in Vermont and Italy. And despite some J&J staff considering a switch of baby powder’s main ingredient from talc to corn starch to avoid liability, the company never stopped selling talcum powder.
Now juries are holding Johnson & Johnson accountable for cancer caused by asbestos in its products.
J&J Talcum Supplier Files for Bankruptcy
In February 2019, Imerys Talc America, a key talc supplier for Johnson & Johnson, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The bankruptcy occurred in the wake of multibillion-dollar lawsuits alleging its talc caused ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.
One of the main causes of mesothelioma — accounting for around 90% of cases — is asbestos exposure. For ovarian cancer, the suspected link to baby powder comes from the product being used by women for personal hygiene.
Washington Senator Makes J&J Talc-Asbestos Inquiry
Also in February 2019, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky asking for documentation about past testing for asbestos contamination in the company’s talc products.
The request came after an investigative report from Reuters News Service revealed J&J hid evidence of asbestos in its products for decades and misled the FDA about it. All of this added up to potential large liability for the company.
Mesothelioma Lawsuits Against J&J
The company has faced multiple lawsuits related to its products.
March 2019: A Superior Court jury in Oakland, California, awarded $29.4 million to Teresa Leavitt. The jury determined asbestos-tainted talc from Johnson & Johnson, which she had used in the 1960s and 1970s, was a “substantial contributing factor” to her mesothelioma diagnosis.
May 2018: A California jury ruled against Johnson & Johnson in a mesothelioma case linked to baby powder. Joanne Anderson and her husband filed suit against J&J and talc suppliers Imerys, Cyprus Amax Minerals and Honeywell International. J&J was required to pay the majority of the $25.7 million verdict.
March 2018: A court in New Jersey ordered J&J and Imerys to pay total damages of $117 million to Stephen Lanzo III and his wife. Lanzo developed mesothelioma after using J&J talcum powder products from 1972 to 2003.
To date, more than $5 billion has been awarded to plaintiffs involving Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products. Shower to Shower was sold to Valeant Pharmaceuticals in 2012, prior to the advent of the first lawsuits in 2016.
10 Cited Article Sources
The sources on all content featured in The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com include medical and scientific studies, peer-reviewed studies and other research documents from reputable organizations.
Johnson & Johnson. (2019, July 12). Johnson & Johnson’s Statement Regarding U.S. Department of Justice Investigation of Talc.
Retrieved from: https://www.jnj.com/our-company/johnson-johnson-statement-regarding-u-s-department-of-justice-investigation-of-talc
Feeley, J. (2019, July 12) J&J Denials of Asbestos in Baby Powder Spur Criminal Probe.
Retrieved from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-12/j-j-denials-of-asbestos-in-baby-powder-spur-u-s-criminal-probe
Sandler, R. (2019, July 12). Report: Johnson & Johnson Under Criminal Investigation For Concealing Cancer Risks of Baby Powder.
Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelsandler/2019/07/12/johnson--johnson-under-criminal-investigation-for-concealing-cancer-risks-of-baby-powder/#3df46d2366e7
Bellon, T. (2019, March 13). California jury awards $29 million to woman with cancer who used J&J talc.
Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-johnson-johnson-cancer-lawsuit/california-jury-awards-29-million-to-woman-with-cancer-who-used-jj-talc-idUSKCN1QV016
WSAU. (2019, January 29). U.S. senator asks J&J for documents on talc, baby powder safety. :
Retrieved from: https://wsau.com/news/articles/2019/jan/29/us-senator-asks-jj-for-documents-on-talc-baby-powder-safety/
Johnson and Johnson. (2019, January 22). What You Need to Know About Johnson & Johnson’s 2018 Full-Year Earnings Report.
Retrieved from: https://www.jnj.com/latest-news/what-you-need-to-know-about-johnson-johnsons-2018-full-year-earnings-report
Girion, L. (2018, December 14). Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its baby powder.
Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/johnsonandjohnson-cancer/
Feely, J., Fisk, M. & Hopkins, J. (2017, September 22). Johnson & Johnson alerted to risk of asbestos in talc in '70s, files show.
Retrieved from: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-johnson-johnson-talc-asbestos-warning-20170922-story.html
Blake, H. (2013, June 26). A history of Johnson & Johnson.
Retrieved from: https://pharmaphorum.com/articles/a-history-of-johnson-johnson/
- Johnson & Johnson. (n.d.). Company History. : Retrieved from: http://www.jnj.ch/en/about-us/company-history.html
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Last Modified June 1, 2020