News Report Details How the FDA’s Cozy Relationship With the Talc Industry Led It To Downplay the Risk of Cancer Caused By Talc Products

Reuters recently published a stunning, 3,400+ word exposé that confirms what many outside observers had suspected—that the Food & Drug Administration allowed powerful players in the talc industry like Johnson & Johnson to dictate the FDA’s “hands-off” policy regarding the cancer risks posed by the asbestos contained in talc products like baby powder.

According to the Reuters report, because of the influence of J&J and other companies, since the 1970s the FDA has downplayed the risk of cancer caused by talc products and has declined to issue warnings or implement safety standards regarding those products.

Reuters’ investigation, which is based on documents from court proceedings and public records requests, paints a damning picture of an industry that prioritizes profits over public safety—and of a government agency that relied on and deferred to, that industry so often that it seems to have failed in its mission to protect the public.

The Reuters report describes a number of events over the past 50 years or so where the talc industry was able to influence the FDA’s approach to investigating talc products. Those events include:

  • In 1971, researchers found what appeared to be asbestos in talc powder. Two years later, the FDA found asbestos in a sample of J&J’s Shower to Shower powder that at the time was made with the same talc as J&J’s Baby Powder. The FDA never made its finding public. Thanks to assurances from J&J and other talc manufacturers that their talc was safe, the FDA ended its inquiry without taking action.
  • That same year, those talc manufacturers and their trade group persuaded the FDA that the industry could monitor the safety of its own products. As a result, the FDA did not impose testing and purity standards for talc products. Instead, the trade group published its own test. Not only was that test voluntary for companies to use, but it used a standard that cannot detect most types of asbestos at low levels and cannot detect one type at all. The type that it cannot detect, chrysotile, is the type of asbestos that was found in J&J’s baby powder in 2019, and in a number of tests on J&J’s talc from 1972 through 2003.
  • In 1983, a graduate student learned from reading geology journals that talc deposits are commonly laced with asbestos. He petitioned the FDA to require an asbestos warning on talc powders. When the FDA evaluated the petition, it relied on a 1974 letter from J&J that said that even if babies were exposed to talc powder containing 1% asbestos, that would be a lower amount than was allowed at the time for industrial workers. The FDA decided, in 1986, that there was no need for a warning.
  • Around that time, the FDA was questioning earlier findings of asbestos in talc powders. The FDA was basing this new perspective on a scientific paper published in the late 1970s written by two J&J employees. The paper suggested that some asbestos tests could misidentify rock splinters as asbestos. But U.S. and European health authorities view those splinters as toxins because of how similar they are to asbestos.
  • In 1995, the FDA’s acting cosmetics chief told a University of Illinois professor who requested a cancer warning label on talc powders that the agency had taken no action because it had other priorities. In 2002, the cosmetics chief left the FDA to join a trade group for the cosmetics industry. That individual is now a consultant who serves as a witness for J&J and other talc companies in talc-related litigation.
  • In 2008, that professor filed a second petition seeking a cancer warning label on talc powders. J&J, its talc supplier, and an industry trade group had a pair of scientists review previous studies that linked talc use with ovarian cancer. The scientists concluded that the evidence of a link between the two was too weak to consider talc to be a cause of ovarian cancer. In 2009, talc industry representatives briefed the FDA on the scientists’ findings. In April 2014, the FDA rejected both of the professor’s requests for a warning label. The language of the agency’s announcement reflected the industry’s 2009 presentation.
  • In 2009, the South Korean health authority found asbestos in talc powders. As a result of that finding, the FDA authorized talc tests for the first time in nearly half a century. The lab it hired found no asbestos in any of the 34 samples, which included J&J’s Baby Powder. But the lab had no experience testing for asbestos in talc, used less talc per sample than other labs that found asbestos in talc powders, and did its work in a fraction of the time labs normally take to conduct such analyses. Interestingly, this lab is the same lab that just recently found asbestos in J&J’s Baby Powder, leading the company to recall that product in November 2019.
  • In November 2018, an invitation-only “Asbestos in Talc Symposium” took place during which United States regulators and their guests met to discuss how to best detect asbestos in talc products. The FDA’s cosmetics chief asked J&J for help in organizing the event. A J&J vice president recommended three talc testing “experts.” All three served as witnesses or consultants for J&J. In addition, 17 of the 21 non-government participants had worked for talc companies. No sessions were led by medical experts who had questioned whether talc products were safe. A physician who testified against J&J in talc-related lawsuits filed against the company was not invited to attend. Perhaps most disturbingly, the FDA cosmetics chief claimed that the meeting was “not intended to discuss health-related issues or concerns” or to reach a consensus on the dangers of talc. However, leaders of sessions at the meeting, including three who are involved in the talc industry, drafted what they called “consensus” or “concurrent” reports. Those reports favored the talc industry’s positions on the dangers of talc.

With J&J facing more than $5 billion in jury verdicts in 2019 alone in lawsuits alleging that its talc products cause cancer, the FDA is under increasing public pressure to monitor talc products to make sure they are free from asbestos.

There is mounting public pressure on J&J as well, based both on those jury verdicts as well as media reports like a December 2018 Reuters report that showed that J&J knew that its talc powders had occasionally tested positive for asbestos from the 1970s into the 2000s but did not report those findings to the FDA.

Eisenberg, Rothweiler, Winkler, Eisenberg & Jeck, P.C., is one of the law firms suing J&J over its alleged cancer-causing baby powder. In fact, our Nancy Winkler and Todd Schoenhaus recently defeated J&J’s efforts to move one of our clients’ talc-related lawsuits to a federal bankruptcy court in Delaware. In that lawsuit, our client alleges that her ovarian cancer was caused by the talc in J&J’s Baby Powder.

With the judge ruling in our client’s favor, her case is back in state court in Philadelphia and will almost certainly be the first talc-related case to be tried before a Philadelphia jury.

If you used either Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder or Shower to Shower Powder regularly as a feminine hygiene product on your genital area and later received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, then you may have grounds to file a lawsuit.

Please visit Eisenberg Rothweiler’s talc information center to learn more information about the connection between the use of talc products and ovarian cancer, and to schedule a free, confidential consultation.

Co-founder and senior shareholder of our law firm, Philadelphia medical malpractice attorney Kenneth M. Rothweiler began his career as a legal clerk for the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Dedicated to complex personal injury litigation, he has tried more than 100 jury trials. These cases resulted in some of the largest verdicts in Pennsylvania.