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Johnson & Johnson accused of hiding the asbestos in its baby powder for decades

A Reuters report caused the stock to tank.

Johnson & Johnson’s famous talk-containing baby powder.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson has long been the undisputed leader in baby product sales and has always tried to portray itself as a gentle, caring company. But a startling new report by Reuters suggests otherwise. The report indicates that small amounts of asbestos have been lurking in some of the company’s talc — the substance that makes baby powder powdery — going back to the 1970s. The company allegedly didn’t openly communicate results, and at times purposely obfuscated them, to both consumers and the Food and Drug Administration.

The information Reuters examined came to light this past summer. Johnson & Johnson was sued by 22 women who claimed the company’s baby powder caused their ovarian cancer, resulting in a $4.7 billion verdict against the company. As a result, old company documents revealing the deception were made public. On Friday, this news tanked the company’s stock, which dropped 11 percent.

This is just the latest in a string of bad news for the company, which has already been battling lawsuits and terrible PR. In recent years, Johnson & Johnson faced some backlash after it was discovered that its iconic golden baby shampoo contained formaldehyde-releasing ingredients. The company removed those chemicals (although they’re probably safe in the amount present in personal care products) and even recently overhauled its entire baby range to compete with smaller brands that have embraced so-called “clean” ingredients.

Most recently, it’s been battling lawsuit after lawsuit alleging that talc use caused plaintiffs’ cancers. Notably, some evidence from a 2016 lawsuit suggested that in the early ’90s, the company targeted black and Hispanic women, who already used the powder in the genital area in higher numbers than white women, for “more aggressive marketing.” There are another 11,700 plaintiffs lined up for cases against J&J, all related to talc.

J&J has vehemently denied that its talc contained asbestos throughout these suits. The link between ovarian cancer and talc is not conclusive, and it’s still not clear that the tiny amounts of asbestos reported in J&J’s past testing were capable of causing the cancers in the past and current lawsuits. But what’s not in dispute is that asbestos is indeed a well-established carcinogen.

The negative publicity from the high legal payouts and Reuters’s seemingly damning evidence of sneaky behavior from the company in the past has brought the issue of hygiene product safety and consumer trust to the forefront. The FDA has very little regulatory power over hygiene products and cosmetics. But this news, which comes at a time when consumer demand is putting a lot of pressure on legislators, may finally mean that laws change.

Baby powder and asbestos

Talc is a natural mineral that is mined from the earth. It’s not totally certain that talc, and its end product talcum powder, is safe even in its purest form. In some cases, it can also be contaminated with asbestos. Asbestos — a category of fibrous minerals known to cause cancer — often shows up in the same mines where talc is, causing contamination.

Health organizations globally recognize asbestos as a carcinogen, causing cancers like mesothelioma and ovarian cancer, especially among people like miners, construction workers, and factory employees who have been exposed to it in large quantities. It gets fuzzier when trying to determine exactly how much exposure is required to actually cause cancer; no one knows how little is enough to set off the very complex chain of events that lead to the disease.

The Reuters report indicates that it’s probably “impossible” to completely purify mined talc and definitely impossible to test for asbestos thoroughly and conclusively in all commercial batches. This all adds up to a recipe for consumer concern — and lawsuits.

The Reuters article, by Lisa Girion, focuses heavily on reports and testing that J&J did in the 1970s on both its baby powder and its Shower to Shower product that was marketed to adults. It weaves a tale of how the company appears to have misled consumers and even the FDA after scientists figured out that asbestos was harmful and that it was showing up in talc samples. The FDA at one point in the ’70s was determining whether and how to regulate it. Girion writes:

J&J didn’t tell the FDA about a 1974 test by a professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire that turned up asbestos in talc from J&J. ... Nor did the company tell the FDA about a 1975 report from its longtime lab that found particles identified as “asbestos fibers” in five of 17 samples of talc from the chief source mine for Baby Powder. “Some of them seem rather high,” the private lab wrote in its cover letter.

J&J continued to insist that its products, even when trace amounts of asbestos were present, were safe, and were finally able to convince consumers that the products could be considered asbestos-free. It allegedly used J&J sponsored studies to “prove” this. In the early ’80s, consumers lobbied the FDA to require talc-containing products to carry an asbestos warning level, but the agency demurred.

Johnson & Johnson baby powder.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson did not respond to Vox’s request for comment, but it did post a lengthy statement on its website, writing that “the Reuters article is one-sided, false and inflammatory” and a “conspiracy theory.” It continues, “Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder is safe and asbestos-free. Studies of more than 100,000 men and women show that talc does not cause cancer or asbestos-related disease.” It accused Reuters of not considering recent testing and cooperation with governing bodies. It did not otherwise rebut Reuters’s allegations.

Implications for consumers now

Cancers like mesotheliomas can take decades to appear after exposure, so even if talc in the ’80s, ’90s, and today has been relatively asbestos-free, old exposure could have consequences in the present. According to Girion in Reuters, “the FDA ... has never limited asbestos in cosmetic talc or established a preferred method for detecting it.” That may change.

The American Cancer Society changed the wording on its website on talc, which used to read, “All talcum products used in homes have been asbestos-free since the 1970s,” to indicate that products produced in the US “should be free from detectable amounts of asbestos.” The ACS apparently amended the language after Reuters reached out to the organization with the evidence it had uncovered for this story.

The FDA has already faced consumer pressure to look more closely at talc. The use of baby powder has declined and is a small percentage of J&J’s business now. But talc is in a lot of other cosmetics and personal care products, like makeup and even lotions. In August, the FDA took samples from several talc suppliers and cosmetics brands at all price points, including products from Maybelline, Nars, and Revlon. It analyzed them in an independent lab and found that none contained asbestos, at least at levels detectable by the types of tests it used. It acknowledged that the results were limited, due the small number of products tested.

Legislators have been facing increased pressure over the past several years from so-called “clean” beauty companies and consumer advocates alike to pass laws that give the FDA more regulatory power over cosmetics and personal care products. A bill was introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) to that effect. Scott Gottlieb, the current FDA commissioner, told Reuters that talc safety is a priority for the agency. He said the FDA planned to hold a forum in early 2019 “to look at how we would develop standards for evaluating any potential risk.”

Panic and powder

It’s unclear if Johnson & Johnson will ever cease producing its iconic baby powder. Doing so might be construed as an admission of wrongdoing, prompting even more lawsuits than already exist. The company also might be digging in its heels. It has insisted throughout its various lawsuits (several of which the company has won) that it believes its talc to be safe and reiterated that stance in light of the Reuters article.

A company representative told Vox in September that the company removed certain chemicals from its baby products in recent years despite believing “people would eventually understand the science and realize that these ingredients are completely safe and that they’re okay to stay in the product.” It’s not likely that consumers will start feeling better about even the specter of asbestos in their products anytime soon, though, and trust in the company has clearly eroded.

One of the other reasons this issue is so thorny is that it’s very difficult to determine definitive causation in cancer cases. As Nicole Wetsman pointed out in Popular Science in August after large damages were awarded to the 22 women alleging they got ovarian cancer from using baby powder (whether or not asbestos was there), legal and scientific evidence of proof have different standards. “What the legal system considers enough evidence to establish that exposures cause illness is different from the standards of science— and trying to fit the two together can be hazardous,” she wrote.

There’s a lot of baseless fearmongering about chemicals in consumer products now, and certainly there are lawyers who will try to capitalize on this latest bad news for Johnson & Johnson. But even though there is plenty of gray area with talc, it seems like the momentum is there to potentially relegate talc-based baby powder to the medicine cabinet of history.

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