For years, mothers used talcum powder when changing their babies’ diapers. The sweet-smelling substance was supposed to keep babies dry and to prevent rashes. It was a staple in bathroom cabinets everywhere. Despite – or because of – the powder’s popularity, there have been persistent allegations about its safety. A product that was meant to help may actually cause harm. Talcum powder is known to contain asbestos in its natural form, which can cause cancer if inhaled. In the mid-1970s, the cosmetics trade association urged its members to comply with guidelines promising that talcum powder would be free of detectable amounts of asbestos. While the FDA does not regulate the sort of talcum powder used in cosmetics, it has said that it is “unacceptable for cosmetic talc to be contaminated with asbestos.” (Studies of links between asbestos-free talc and cancer have produced mixed results.) Despite regulatory gaps and inconsistencies, the consensus was clear: talcum powder should not contain asbestos.
However, in early December, Reuters revealed the results of a long-term investigation into the practices of Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturer of a popular brand of baby powder. For decades, the company – and its lawyers and scientists – knew that Johnson’s Baby Powder contained small amounts of asbestos, and they withheld that information from government regulators and from the public. Trace amounts of asbestos were found in the company’s talcum powder as early as 1957. When minerals associated with asbestos were found in talc extracted from Johnson & Johnson’s Vermont mines, an executive asked if those minerals were necessarily bad or if they could be used safely in talcum products. (In response, a company physician said that such minerals should be kept to a minimum.) In the 1970s, with both the FDA and the cosmetics trade association becoming increasingly concerned about the link between asbestos and cancer (and with physicians and lawyers exploring the potential dangers of talcum), Johnson & Johnson affirmed that its products were asbestos free. However, three independent laboratories found asbestos in the company’s talcum powder, and one laboratory described the amount detected as “rather high.” Internal correspondence and test results from the 1970s show a consistent, nagging awareness of the talcum powder’s dangers. While Johnson & Johnson’s research director alerted other executives that baby powder would never be entirely free of asbestos (in 1973!), the company convinced regulators that it could police itself. According to Reuters, Johnson & Johnson successfully suppressed unfavorable information about its signature product from the 1970s on into the current decade. Nevertheless, many consumers had lingering doubts. Despite the company’s claims about the safety of its products, the company has been the subject of more than 11,000 lawsuits, many of them by women who argued that Johnson’s Baby Powder had caused ovarian cancer. The Reuters investigation promises to revive these concerns and perhaps rectify a decades-old wrong.
Kathleen Davies is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.