The Johnson & Johnson Talc Issue in 620 Words

One of the prevailing topics of discussion in environmental circles lately, as well as within the consumer goods pages of the national news, has been talc powder and its relationship to asbestos and cancer. Recently however, this issue leaped from these relatively obscure circles of conversation and journalism and made international headlines when the mega firm Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was hit with a $21.7 million-dollar verdict by a Los Angles jury. “The verdict…came down in the case of 68-year-old Joanne Anderson, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma…and marked the second trial loss for J&J over similar allegations,”[1] as a New Jersey man was also awarded a financial settlement, for $117 million dollars as compensation for his mesothelioma diagnosis. Both plaintiffs in both cases claim their use of J&J baby powder over decades of time led to their terminal illnesses. J&J vehemently deny the accusations and point to “decades of testing by independent laboratories and scientists”[2] which they claim determined that their talc products did not in fact contain asbestos. Although J&J pulled in $76.45 billion dollars of revenue last year alone, digging their heels in and refusing to acquiesce or admit legal culpability appears to be a move of sheer survival.

 

Currently, J&J is “battling some 6,000 cases claiming its baby powder caused ovarian cancer, but the talc litigation has taken a new focus in recent months with plaintiffs claiming the widely used product causes mesothelioma due to alleged asbestos contamination.”[3] It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that if J&J begin losing even half of these cases, it would spell financial calamity for the company and its shareholders.

 

So, this begs the question; what does the science say about talc as a carcinogen and its relationship to asbestos? Clearly the plaintiffs in these cases have some scientific validity to back their claims, otherwise we would not be discussing their multi-million dollar lawsuits. Well, this issue presents itself in two separate ways, the first issue at hand is whether or not talc itself is a known carcinogen. The science here is questionable at best, however “some researchers suspect that talc may cause cancer in some susceptible individuals, but the connection between talc itself and the formation of malignant cells is tenuous [besides]; the FDA has classified talc to be ‘Generally Recognized as Safe.’”[4] So, if medical scientists can’t definitively say that talc is a known carcinogen in and of itself, what is the problem, and what are the plaintiffs in the above mentioned cases hanging their proverbial hat on?

 

The problem is that “both talc and tremolite [asbestos] are metamorphic, created by the same geologic processes; both are forms of magnesium silicate.”[5] Therefore, “not surprisingly, talc deposits are frequently found near sources of tremolite, though in the past, this went undetected since nobody was interested in mining tremolite. Many talc mines thus produced material highly contaminated with tremolite asbestos fibers, which then get into products made from talc.”[6] Even though, “today, most talc undergoes inspection for the presence of tremolite asbestos,”[7] the plaintiffs in these talc cases claim that J&J was negligent in their inspection processes and that it is nearly impossible to remove asbestos from talc due to the intermingling of the minerals in the mining process. This argument, according to two separate juries in two separate states holds water, therefore begging the question; will talc powder remain a viable consumer product and continue to hold that special place in the hearts of all parents, or will it go the way of lawn darts and EPHEDRA?

 

[1] “J&J hit with $21.7 million verdict in another talc asbestos cancer case.” Reuters. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/24/jj-hit-with-21-point-7-million-verdict-in-another-talc-asbestos-cancer-case.html (retrieved June 1, 2018)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Asbestos in Talc Powder Products.” https://www.mesothelioma.com/asbestos-exposure/products/talc-powder/ (retrieved June 1, 2018)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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