In an explosive exposé last month, Reuters reported that Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that its talcum baby powder contained cancer-causing asbestos but concealed that information from regulators and the public.
The report highlights the need to push back against any attempt to ease restrictions on asbestos and preserve the means to hold accountable those companies that have profited at the expense of public health.
Sources of Exposure
Asbestos is naturally occurring fibrous mineral, widely used throughout much of the 20th Century as an insulator and fire retardant. Manufacturers used asbestos in floor titles, roofing shingles, automobile parts, caulk and joint compound.
However, in the ‘70s, people grew increasingly concerned about the health effects of exposure to asbestos. It was discovered that the material becomes harmful when it is disturbed, releasing tiny fibers into the air. When inhaled, these fibers can become lodged in the lungs or other tissue, causing often-fatal illnesses.
Mountains of medical research link the material to diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. Asbestos-related diseases are an epidemic in the United States with recent reports showing that 45,000 people had died from mesothelioma from 1999 through 2015. Particularly hard-hit have been construction workers, shipbuilders, auto mechanics, tradespeople and the military.
But now, other sources of exposure are coming to light, most notably products containing talc.
Talc, a mineral containing magnesium, silicon and oxygen, is used in powders to absorb moisture and prevent friction. Thus, it is used in baby powder, hygiene products and cosmetics. However, talc and asbestos are often found near each other in the earth and studies have shown that cross-contamination can occur during mining.
Over the last few years, a growing number of lawsuits have been filed alleging baby powder and other cosmetic products containing talc were contaminated with harmful levels of asbestos.
Two recent large verdicts against Johnson & Johnson were awarded in suits alleging use of asbestos-tainted talcum powder caused mesothelioma. In July, a landmark $4.69 billion verdict was awarded to 22 plaintiffs who alleged that Johnson & Johnson products contaminated with asbestos caused ovarian cancer.
Still, it has been a mixed bag with numerous suits, with at least three juries rejecting allegations that talcum powder caused illnesses and others resulting in mistrials.
However, the Dec. 14 Reuters report could change the legal landscape for plaintiffs alleging harm from using talc-based products.
According to the report, journalists examined documents, deposition transcripts and trial testimony, concluding that Johnson & Johnson executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers knew since 1971, or even earlier, that the raw talc used in the company’s products had tested positive for of asbestos. Despite this, the company never informed regulators or the public.
Reuters has made thousands of pages of those documents available to the public. Those documents show that “company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem” of asbestos contamination, but ultimately concealed it.
The report demonstrates, again, how the extent of asbestos contamination is not yet fully known. If it is present in dangerous levels in baby powder, what other products may be similarly tainted?
Making a Comeback?
The revelations about Johnson & Johnson’s awareness of asbestos in its products came as the Trump Administration is taking steps that could revive commercial use of the carcinogen.
The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing forward with a so-called “significant new use rule” under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, requiring companies to receive agency approval before starting or resuming the manufacturing, importing or processing of asbestos. The EPA would then evaluate the intended use of the material on a case-by-case basis, determining whether to limit or prohibit the proposed use.
The proposed rule contains obvious loopholes, leaving the door open for agency approval of long-dormant uses for the toxic material like gaskets, sealants and roofing felt.
Many believe that the rule is a regulatory end-around intended to expand asbestos use—something President Trump has advocated numerous times over the years.
Education and Action
The latest news about asbestos in talc-based products underlines the need to educate yourself and take action to ensure you are healthy and protected. You should:
- Research which products you are using that contain talc, including hygiene products, cosmetics and makeup.
- Learn the possible symptoms of illnesses related to asbestos exposure such as shortness of breath, extreme weight loss and fatigue, which could be signs of mesothelioma.
- Speak to your representatives in Congress, and let them know that any easing of regulations on asbestos use must be stopped.
- Support laws allowing lawsuits and punitive damages to hold accountable those who have profited while turning a blind eye to asbestos contamination.
Finally, if you think you’ve suffered from any health issues related to asbestos exposure and would like help with a filing a claim, contact our Firm today.