A recent report by Reuters details troubling links between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and pharmaceutical and cosmetics giant Johnson & Johnson concerning efforts by safety advocates to conduct testing and provide warning labels to consumers about the potential risks of asbestos contamination in talcum powder products. The investigation details how, over decades, the FDA often relied upon testing or otherwise deferred to individuals linked to Johnson & Johnson when making determinations about the safety of the company’s talc-based products.
The special report shows that since the 1970s, federal regulators have deferred to Johnson & Johnson when independent scientists and researchers brought up concerns that talcum powder products may be contaminated with carcinogenic asbestos. When a line of cosmetics products tested positive for asbestos back in March 2019, the FDA noted “We are dependent on manufacturers to take steps to ensure the safety of their products.” Most recently, Johnson & Johnson conducted a voluntary recall of its iconic Baby Powder after the FDA found that the product tested positive for asbestos.
In chronicling the FDA’s deference to Johnson & Johnson, the report shows that federal regulators were concerned about asbestos fibers in talcum powder as far back as the 1970s, but quickly ended inquiries after assurances from companies using talc that their products were safe. Eventually, the role of monitoring and testing talc-based products fell to the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association after convincing the FDA that manufacturers were best suited to conduct oversight.
The trade group published its own voluntary test for companies to use. However, the written standard for that test acknowledges that it cannot detect most types of asbestos at low levels, nor could it detect chrysotile asbestos at all. Chrysotile asbestos was eventually found in certain lots of Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder in October 2019, and has been detected in asbestos tests conducted internally by Johnson & Johnson since the 1970s.
In the early 1980s, independent researchers brought asbestos contamination in talc to the attention of the FDA, noting that talc and asbestos are often found side by side one another in deposits. The FDA eventually overlooked the concern, pointing to a Johnson & Johnson letter from 1974 asserting that even if asbestos were present in talc, the exposure level to consumers would be far below the level of industrial exposure.
Currently, Johnson & Johnson is a defendant in an estimated 14,000 talcum powder asbestos cancer lawsuits in state and federal courts across the country. In total, juries have awarded over $5 billion in compensation to plaintiffs who claim they developed various forms of cancer, including mesothelioma, from exposure to talc-based products manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.
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