In 1999 a women named Darlene Coker sued multiple small pharmacies in her hometown along with the emerging Johnson & Johnson (J&J), claiming that their famous talc powder gave a rare form of caner to the mother of two.
Coker hired Herschel Hobson, a personal-injury lawyer. He homed in on a suspect: the Johnson’s Baby Powder that Coker had used on her infant children and sprinkled on herself all her life. Hobson knew that talc and asbestos often occurred together in the earth, and that mined talc could be contaminated with the carcinogen. Coker sued Johnson & Johnson, alleging that “poisonous talc” in the company’s beloved product was her killer.
The plaintiff demanded test results and confidential company records to be disclosed but did not have enough evidence to tie the company with what was happening inside her lungs. Due to this lack of evidence the court did not allow the disclosure of sensitive company results. Frustrated over the case, Coker decided to drop it.
Coker’s case was monumental, because 20 years ago it was the first one to tie the famous company with carcinogen that caused cancer. Sadly, Darlene Coker would not get justice, but today women in scores are suing the company and winning cases.
The investigation uncovered that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.
The documents also depict successful efforts to influence U.S. regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientific research on the health effects of talc.
A small portion of the documents have been produced at trial and cited in media reports. Many were shielded from public view by court orders that allowed J&J to turn over thousands of documents it designated as confidential. Much of their contents is reported here for the first time.
The earliest mentions of tainted J&J talc that Reuters found come from 1957 and 1958 reports by a consulting lab. They describe contaminants in talc from J&J’s Italian supplier as fibrous and “acicular,” or needle-like, tremolite. That’s one of the six minerals that in their naturally occurring fibrous form are classified as asbestos.
At various times from then into the early 2000s, reports by scientists at J&J, outside labs and J&J’s supplier yielded similar findings. The reports identify contaminants in talc and finished powder products as asbestos or describe them in terms typically applied to asbestos, such as “fiberform” and “rods.”
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.
The evidence of what J&J knew has surfaced after people who suspected that talc caused their cancers hired lawyers experienced in the decades-long deluge of litigation involving workers exposed to asbestos. Some of the lawyers knew from those earlier cases that talc producers tested for asbestos, and they began demanding J&J’s testing documentation.
In two cases earlier this year – in New Jersey and California – juries awarded big sums to plaintiffs who, like Coker, blamed asbestos-tainted J&J talc products for their mesothelioma.
A third verdict, in St. Louis, was a watershed, broadening J&J’s potential liability: The 22 plaintiffs were the first to succeed with a claim that asbestos-tainted Baby Powder and Shower to Shower talc, a longtime brand the company sold in 2012, caused ovarian cancer, which is much more common than mesothelioma. The jury awarded them $4.69 billion in damages. Most of the talc cases have been brought by women with ovarian cancer who say they regularly used J&J talc products as a perineal antiperspirant and deodorant.
At the same time, at least three juries have rejected claims that Baby Powder was tainted with asbestos or caused plaintiffs’ mesothelioma. Others have failed to reach verdicts, resulting in mistrials.
J&J has said it will appeal the recent verdicts against it. It has maintained in public statements that its talc is safe, as shown for years by the best tests available, and that the information it has been required to divulge in recent litigation shows the care the company takes to ensure its products are asbestos-free. It has blamed its losses on juror confusion, “junk” science, unfair court rules and overzealous lawyers looking for a fresh pool of asbestos plaintiffs.
In 1886, Robert Wood Johnson enlisted his younger brothers in an eponymous startup built around the “Safety First” motto. Johnson’s Baby Powder grew out of a line of medicated plasters, sticky rubber strips loaded with mustard and other home remedies. When customers complained of skin irritation, the brothers sent packets of talc.
Soon, mothers began applying the talc to infants’ diaper-chafed skin. The Johnsons took note. They added a fragrance that would become one of the most recognizable in the world, sifted the talc into tin boxes and, in 1893, began selling it as Johnson’s Baby Powder.
In the late 1950s, J&J discovered that talc from its chief source mine for the U.S. market in the Italian Alps contained tremolite. That’s one of six minerals – along with chrysotile, actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite and crocidolite – that occur in nature as crystalline fibers known as asbestos, a recognized carcinogen. Some of them, including tremolite, also occur as unremarkable “non-asbestiform” rocks. Both forms often occur together and in talc deposits.
J&J’s worry at the time was that contaminants made the company’s powder abrasive. It sent tons of its Italian talc to a private lab in Columbus, Ohio, to find ways to improve the appearance, feel and purity of the powder by removing as much “grit” as possible. In a pair of reports from 1957 and 1958, the lab said the talc contained “from less than 1 percent to about 3 percent of contaminants,” described as mostly fibrous and “acicular” tremolite.
By the early 1970s, asbestos was widely recognized as the primary cause of mesothelioma among workers involved in producing it and in industries that used it in their products. Regulation was in the air. In 1972, President Richard Nixon’s newly created OSHA issued its first rule, setting limits on workplace exposure to asbestos dust.
Why were tests of lung tissue taken post mortem from New Yorkers who never worked with asbestos finding signs of the mineral? Since talc deposits are often laced with asbestos, the scientists reasoned, perhaps talcum powders played a role.
Johnson & Johnson developed a strategy in the 1970s to deal with a growing volume of research showing that talc miners had elevated rates of lung disease and cancer: Promote the positive, challenge the negative. That approach was summed up by a J&J applied research director in a “strictly confidential” March 3, 1975, memo to managers of the baby products division, which used the talc in J&J’s signature Baby Powder.
“Our current posture with respect to the sponsorship of talc safety studies has been to initiate studies only as dictated by confrontation,” the memo said. “This philosophy, so far, has allowed us to neutralize or hold in check data already generated by investigators who question the safety of talc.”
This only goes to show the extent companies, manufacturers and corporations are willing to go to in order to sell their products. But in all of this the most shameful role has been of the state institutions, and medical studies. The departments people trust with their life and safety have for decades blatantly ignored public safety. The courts failed Darlene Coker and the “influenced” studies failed many nameless other mothers and women.
Hobson is still practicing law in Nederland, Texas. When Reuters told him about the evidence that had emerged in recent litigation, he said: “They knew what the problems were, and they hid it.” J&J’s records would have made a “100% difference” in Coker’s case.
Had the information about asbestos in J&J’s talc come out earlier, he said, “maybe there would have been 20 years less exposure” for other people.
Bicks, the J&J lawyer, said Coker dropped her case because “the discovery established that J&J talc had nothing to do with Plaintiff’s disease, and that asbestos exposure from a commercial or occupational setting was the likely cause.”
Coker never learned why she had mesothelioma. She did beat the odds, though. Most patients die within a year of diagnosis. Coker held on long enough to see her two grandchildren.
Coker’s daughter Crystal Deckard was 5 when her sister, Cady, was born in 1971. Deckard remembers seeing the white bottle of Johnson’s Baby Powder on the changing table where her mother diapered her new sister.
“When Mom was given this death sentence, she was the same age as I am right now,” Deckard said. “I have it in the back of my mind all the time. Could it happen to us? Me? My sister?”
We all grew up with J&J baby powder, the familiar fragrance of it, but little did we know that the company selling us “no tears” was also providing us with a “yes cancer” all along.