An explosive new report by Reuters released Friday may upturn the narrative surrounding the potential cancer risks of talcum powder. According to the report, Johnson & Johnson—the makers of the most popular consumer talc product, Baby Powder—knew for decades that its products at times contained carcinogenic asbestos, but did everything possible to keep its findings shrouded from the public and even health officials.
The report’s allegations are sourced from hundreds of internal company documents, according to Reuters, which the news agency has also made available to the public. Many of the documents were obtained during the course of legal battles waged against Johnson & Johnson over the years by customers alleging its products had caused their cancers; others were obtained by various journalists and news organisations.
Collectively, the documents seem to paint a damning picture of the company’s actions—and inaction—surrounding its products.
Talc is a soft white clay pulled up from the earth in mines. In these mines, asbestos—a broad term for six kinds of minerals that can be found in long, thin fibres—is regularly found alongside deposits of talc. But for decades, the company assured the public and regulators that its products were free of asbestos, even as some internal and independent tests found otherwise, according to the report.
In 1976, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was weighing limits on asbestos in cosmetic talc products, J&J assured the regulator that no asbestos was “detected in any sample” of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973. It didn’t tell the agency that at least three tests by three different labs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in its talc – in one case at levels reported as “rather high.”
Reuters reports that the company was particularly sneaky in handling the first known lawsuit from a former customer, Darlene Coker, who alleged in 1997 that its products had caused her mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. According to the Reuters report, J&J successfully denied requests by Coker’s attorney to turn over internal documents that would have demonstrated the presence of asbestos in its mining operations and products (Coker’s lungs were shown to be loaded with the sort of asbestos often seen in workers who are exposed to talc in large quantities). Without the documents, Coker dropped the case in 1999 and died a decade later.
Since Coker’s failed lawsuit, there have been more than 11,000 plaintiffs who have alleged that J&J’s products caused their cancers, according to Reuters. Many of these lawsuits, which often did not assert that asbestos contamination might have been the major contributing factor, have similarly failed, but cases that have gone to trial have resulted in verdicts in favour of the plaintiff. Just this July, a Missouri jury ordered the company to pay $US4.69 ($7) billion in damages to 22 women and their families. In 2017, however, a California judge reversed a $US417 ($580) million verdict and ordered a new trial.
Health agencies have largely agreed with J&J in asserting that there is no clear link between consumer talcum powders and cancer, but the World Health Organisation has long ruled that talc found with asbestos is a carcinogen.
In response to Reuters, a company spokesperson for J&J told the news agency that its findings were false and misleading and that any positive tests were outliers. The company’s stock, however, fell by as much as 11 per cent today after the report was published, according to CNN.
Gizmodo has reached out to J&J for comment and will update this post when we hear back.