J&J Was Alerted to Risk of Asbestos in Talc in ’70s, Files Show


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Johnson & Johnson trained its employees to reassure anyone concerned about whether the company’s talcum powder contained asbestos that the cancer-causing substance “has never been found and it never will’’ in its iconic baby powder, according to an undated memo unsealed in a lawsuit against the drugmaker.

But plaintiffs say other unsealed documents indicate that J&J has known for decades that its talc products include asbestos fibers and that the exposure to those fibers can cause ovarian cancer. The talc used by J&J to make its products “is not now, nor has it ever been, free from asbestos and asbestiform fibers,’’ according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of more than 50 women in St. Louis.

The unsealed documents add another dimension to the claims against J&J as it defends itself from more than 5,000 suits across the U.S. blaming its baby powder products for causing women to develop ovarian cancer. While five juries have ruled against J&J, the company has won one case and had some other claims thrown out.

One of the documents unsealed Sept. 6 indicates that in May 1974, an official at J&J’s Windsor mine in Vermont recommended “the use of citric acid in the depression of chrysotile asbestos’’ from talc extracted from the site.

“The use of these systems is strongly urged by this writer to provide protection against what are currently considered to be materials presenting a severe health hazard and are potentially present in all talc ores in use at this time,’’ the mine’s director of research and development wrote then.

Documents provided by J&J show tests of its talc stretching back to at least 1972 found no traces of asbestos, though the two minerals often occur naturally near each other. In a 1983 worldwide study of its talc products, the drugmaker found “all talcs in this report were found to be free from asbestiform minerals and to conform to cosmetic talc requirements.”

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