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.
J&J developed the first commercial first aid kits as well as maternity kits to make childbirth safer.
Before the turn of the century, J&J also became the first company to mass-produce dental floss and women’s sanitary pads. In 1894, it launched one of its most iconic products: Johnson’s Baby Powder, made of crushed talc.
The rapid success of Johnson’s Baby Powder led to a line of baby products. The company also went on to market adult talcum powder products such as Shower to Shower body powder.
During the 20th century, J&J expanded its operations to countries around the world. It continued to introduce new consumer products such as Band-Aid and Baby Shampoo. The company also expanded into medical device and drug development.
Today, Johnson & Johnson is one of the largest health care companies in the world. In 2017, the company reported more than $76 billion in sales.
That same year, J&J began to face lawsuits over asbestos exposure from contaminated talcum powder products.
Baby Powder Asbestos Controversy
Asbestos-related diseases usually arise after years of regular exposure to the toxic mineral. Many people initially received talcum powder to prevent diaper rash and then continued using the product into adulthood.
Long-term use of asbestos-contaminated talcum powder can lead to cancer.
Many sources of talc are naturally contaminated with asbestos. The two minerals often occur in the same geological formations.
The Hidden Dangers of Talc
Talc companies have covered up the dangerous link to asbestos and mesothelioma for years.Learn About The Talc Cover-Up
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 both asbestos and talc as harmless wonder materials.
The asbestos industry manipulated medical research around its products as long as it could. The corporate cover-up of asbestos’s cancer-causing effects lasted well into the 1970s. The talc industry played a role by downplaying the danger of asbestos contamination in talc products.
Johnson & Johnson has always publically denied its talcum powder products cause cancer. In 1976, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital exposed asbestos contamination in several talcum powder brands, but reported J&J’s products to be asbestos-free.
But documents unsealed in 2017 reveal J&J company executives were aware of asbestos liabilities in the 1970s.
Company reports highlighted the need to suppress concerns over asbestos contamination at talc mines in Vermont and Italy. Some J&J staff considered switching baby powder’s main ingredient to corn starch and totally discontinuing talcum powder to avoid liability.
J&J never stopped selling talcum powder, however, and now juries are holding the company accountable for cancer caused by asbestos.
In February 2019, Imerys Talc America, a key talc supplier for Johnson & Johnson, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the wake of multibillion-dollar lawsuits alleging its talc caused ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.
Earlier that month, 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.
Mesothelioma Lawsuits Against J&J
In March 2019, a Superior Court jury in Oakland, California, awarded $29.4 million to Teresa Leavitt, believing asbestos-tainted talc from Johnson & Johnson led to her diagnosis of mesothelioma. Leavitt told the jury she often used Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products in the 1960s and 1970s. The jury determined the talc was a “substantial contributing factor” in her cancer.
In May 2018, a jury in California ruled against Johnson & Johnson in mesothelioma case linked to baby powder. Joanne Anderson and her husband filed the lawsuit against J&J and several talc suppliers including Imerys, Cyprus Amax Minerals and Honeywell International. J&J was required to pay the majority of the $25.7 million verdict.
Two months earlier, a court in New Jersey ordered J&J to pay more than $80 million to Stephen Lanzo III and his wife. Lanzo developed mesothelioma after using J&J talcum powder products from 1972 to 2003. Talc supplier Imerys was also found liable, and the total damages awarded were $117 million.
7 Cited Article Sources
Bellon, T. (2019, March 13). California jury awards $29 million to woman with cancer who used J&J talc.
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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/
WSAU. (2019, January 29). U.S. senator asks J&J for documents on talc, baby powder safety. :
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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
Hayes, P. (2017, September 14). Johnson & Johnson’s Newest Talc Problem? Asbestos.
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- Johnson & Johnson. (n.d.). Company History. Retrieved from: http://www.jnj.ch/en/about-us/company-history.html
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Last Modified March 21, 2019