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Lo-res_35515789-SThe scientific evidence detailing what factors in the environment function as carcinogens, such that they have a direct link to increased cancer risks (e.g., tobacco), has piled up and led to various changes in policy and consumer behavior. Asbestos is a clear carcinogen; the mineral penetrates the lungs of people who breathe it, leading to long-term ill effects for those exposed. Those effects have been known for decades, leading manufacturers to remove it from products that once contained it, like insulation. But asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that appears in nature, so some products could unintentionally contain it.

The link between talc, another natural mineral, and cancer is less clear. Yet hundreds of women believe that such a link exists, as documented in lawsuits they have brought against Johnson & Johnson. Talc is the main ingredient of the company’s famous baby powder. Its iconic white, square container and distinctive smell are familiar to millions of people whose parents used it on them as children, as well as millions more who continue to use the product as adults for its soothing, hygienic, and personal care properties. But according to dozens of lawsuits, that comforting symbol of care became, after long-term use, a cancer agent that caused users to develop ovarian cancer and mesothelioma, among others.

Johnson & Johnson has steadfastly denied that its baby powder causes cancer. In response to all lawsuits, it has fought back vigorously, arguing that its products have no bearing on the plaintiffs’ unfortunate diagnoses. But in the course of fighting these cases in court, Johnson & Johnson also has been subject to Freedom of Information requests that demanded access to its internal memos and documentation. That evidence has raised a new development, one that might put Johnson & Johnson’s denials in question.

Specifically, the recently released memos, some of which were written in the early 1970s, indicate that Johnson & Johnson was aware that there was a risk that its talc-based baby powder could contain asbestos as well. Talc and asbestos often occur in close proximity in nature, so the potential for cross-contamination is reasonable, simply through sourcing operations. Thus scores of internal memos, spanning decades, report the potential presence of asbestos in the baby powder. In addition to describing the possibility of this risk, the memos outline responsible and ethical options for mitigating the threat and avoiding any contamination. But other memos also detail possibilities for quashing any reports of the frightening contamination from going public and suggest some illicit efforts undertaken by the firm and its allies to influence policy makers and regulators to protect the product from too much scrutiny.

In its ongoing and consistent defense, Johnson & Johnson denies that it has done anything wrong. It has fought all lawsuits and asserts that any reports of asbestos in the baby powder are “junk science.” It also cites evidence from hundreds of random tests that never found asbestos in any samples of the talc it sells to consumers. Yet the memos imply that the company was long aware of a few tests that indicated at least some contamination. They also indicate the firm did nothing to prevent it—and even might have worked to cover up the issue. Although the evidence of such influence is somewhat circumstantial, currently, no federal regulations exist to ban the presence of asbestos in talcum powder, though a voluntary industry policy adopts a zero-tolerance stance. Nor have any regulatory agencies ever charged Johnson & Johnson with any wrongdoing.

The reports that indicate Johnson & Johnson knew of the potential presence of asbestos in its baby powder are, according to plaintiffs in the ongoing cases, the smoking gun that will leave the company liable. But the company stands strong in its insistence that there is no real evidence of contamination and that its beloved product does not cause cancer. The ethical quandary is particularly pressing for Johnson & Johnson, whose foundation brand image is wrapped up in its ethical choices.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Is Johnson & Johnson acting ethically?
  2. Is the evidence sufficient to show that the baby powder causes cancer?


Source: Roni Caryn Rabin and Tiffany Hsu, “Johnson & Johnson Feared Baby Powder’s Possible Asbestos Link for Years,” The New York Times, December 14, 2018