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Written on 13th July 2018 by

Over the past couple of months Johnson & Johnson, a company synonymous with baby skin care products, with tag lines such as “clinically proven to be as mild as water”, have come under significant scrutiny following a $117m award of compensation for mesothelioma, after it was revealed through trial documentation that Johnson’s talc baby powder contained asbestos.

The decision to award damages in this case was made by a jury in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The claim was made against the company Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc, together with Imerys Talc America Inc. According to reports, following consideration of confidential documentation from Johnsons’ company documents, the jury awarded the claimant $37m in compensation for his asbestos cancer mesothelioma. They also awarded $80m in punitive damages.  Punitive damages are awarded where compensation alone is seen to be inadequate and as a deterrent for any similar future practice by the company. 

The case in question was Steven and Kendra Lanzo v Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc and Imerys Talc America Inc.  The claimants were represented by American mesothelioma law firm, Kazan Law, who advocate for the rights of asbestos victims. 

During the trial, confidential company documents were disclosed which revealed that the companies were aware that Johnson’s talc baby powder contained asbestos. Consequently, the jury found that Johnson & Johnson should stop selling Johnson’s talc baby powder and should replace the talc with cornstarch. 

The documents showed that Johnson & Johnson were aware since the 1960s that the talc used in its baby powder contained asbestos and that it could cause cancer. 

The talcum powder itself is not considered to be the cause of the mesothelioma, but the fact that it is contaminated with amphibole asbestos tremolite. Talcum powder and tremolite are substances created by the same geologic process, therefore, the materials are frequently found in the same areas.

The Johnson’s Baby UK website reassures its consumers that their baby powder does not contain asbestos. The website states, “Johnson’s® baby powder does not contain asbestos, a substance classified as cancer causing. The talc used in all our global production is carefully selected and processed to be asbestos free, which is confirmed by regular testing to confirm purity. Like all our products, Johnson’s baby powder contains only ingredients that have been fully evaluated by scientific and medical experts to ensure they are safe to use”. 

The link between mesothelioma and talcum powder remains controversial and Johnson & Johnson are expected to appeal the decision. The company has previously come under scrutiny for links between ovarian cancer and talcum powder, although large studies such as the Nurses’ Health Study (2010) and the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Cohort (2014) have found no causal link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. However, these studies did not stop a jury in Missouri yesterday awarding $4.7 bn in damages to 22 women who alleged they had developed ovarian cancer after using their baby powder. Johnson & Johnson is set to appeal the decision.

Talcum powder is a controversial product and many midwives do not recommend the use of talcum powder, owing to the risk that it may be contributing to the growing number of children diagnosed with asthma. 

We will watch out for further developments in the asbestos talcum powder cases and await with interest the outcome of any appeal and any further documentation which Johnson & Johnson may produce.

Whether or not talcum powder poses an asbestos risk and a risk of mesothelioma appears from, the evidence, to be uncertain. What is clear is that talc can be contaminated with tremolite as a consequence of the natural process of its creation but the company maintains its position that the talc used in these products is asbestos free. 

What is certain is that the prolific use of asbestos in the past means that this is unlikely to be the last consumer product that we encounter which used to contain asbestos.

If you or a family member are suffering from mesothelioma or other asbestos-related disease, email us at IDclaims@boyesturner.com for a free initial conversation.