Last modified: April 22, 2021
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.
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.
Asbestos Talc Lawsuits and News Involving Johnson & Johnson
Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson set aside $3.9 billion for talc-related litigation, according to a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington D.C.
Johnson & Johnson announced it would end sales of its talc-based baby powder in the U.S. and Canada, but would continue to sell it internationally. Retailers kept selling stock of the product until it ran out. J&J will continue to make a cornstarch-based version of its Johnson’s Baby Powder available in the U.S. and Canada.
Retailers throughout the U.S. pulled J&J’s talc-based baby powder from shelves after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found asbestos in one of the containers. The container was part of a 33,000-bottle batch that the company voluntarily recalled on Oct. 18, 2019.
A New York Jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $325 million to Donna Olson, who claimed J&J’s talcum powder caused her to develop mesothelioma. The jury awarded $25 million in compensatory damages and $300 million in punitive damages.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sent a letter requesting documentation about past testing of Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder for asbestos. The letter was in response to a report released by Reuters News Service in 2018 that said J&J had covered up tests showing asbestos contamination since the 1970s.
Reuters published an investigative report claiming that Johnson & Johnson knew its iconic baby powder contained asbestos. Tests from independent labs detected asbestos in the product from 1971 to the early 2000s, but J&J covered it up and never reported it to the FDA.
A California jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $25.7 million to Joanne Anderson, who said she developed mesothelioma from using the company’s talcum powder. The jury awarded $21.7 million in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages.
A New Jersey jury ordered J&J and Imerys Talc America to pay $80 million in punitive damages to Stephen Lanzo III, who claimed he developed mesothelioma from using the company’s Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products from 1972 to 2003.
Lanzo was awarded $37 million in compensatory damages the week prior. Punitive damages brought the total verdict to $117 million. It was J&J’s first loss involving an asbestos talcum powder lawsuit.
Evidence in a class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson showed the company had known its talcum powder products contained asbestos since the early 1970s. J&J trained its employees to reassure the public that its products were never contaminated. The lawsuit was filed by more than 50 women with ovarian cancer in St. Louis.
To date, billions of dollars have been awarded to plaintiffs involving Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and Shower to Shower products. Shower to Shower was sold to Valeant Pharmaceuticals (now Bausch Health) in 2012, prior to the advent of the first lawsuits in 2016.
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