The latest development in the decades-long Johnson & Johnson asbestos scandal is news that the pharmaceutical giant funded an experiment injecting black male prisoners with asbestos in 1971. The information was brought to light in two separate trials pursued by individuals holding J&J responsible for their cancers – mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.
Johnson & Johnson has faced much controversy within the last several years after revelations the company’s Baby Powder tested positive for traces of asbestos more than once. Due to the shocking revelations, many asbestos exposure victims have come forward to hold Johnson & Johnson accountable for its actions – hoping to deter other companies from making the same unethical mistakes. With more and more victims claiming Johnson & Johnson is responsible for their cancer, internal reports have emerged shedding light on J&J’s practices for more than half a century – intensifying the healthcare conglomerate’s asbestos scandal.
Mesothelioma Guide researched and reviewed many details of Johnson & Johnson’s talc and asbestos controversy, discovering reports of unethical testing, signs of harmful business practices, and alleged cover-ups. The specifics of our research have been compiled and summarized into the following timeline.
Is Baby Powder Safe?
Baby powder is a talcum (talc) powder-based product. Talc is a soft, naturally occurring mineral found throughout the country. It is usually green, white, gray or brown and is composed mainly of three elements: magnesium, silicon and oxygen.
Talc is the fundamental ingredient in talcum powder – used to absorb moisture, oils, odors and other infectants. Baby powder is commonly used cosmetically, mostly by women for themselves or their babies. With women as the target audience for marketing baby powder, they are at higher risk for asbestos exposure and developing asbestos diseases from using talcum powder.
While talc itself is a noncancerous mineral, the chance of asbestos contamination is high while the mineral is still in the earth.
Asbestos, like talc, is a naturally occurring silicate mineral found underground and in many of the same geographic areas as talc. According to the FDA, talc and asbestos are found close enough to each other that they often mix. When talc is mined, there’s a high possibility of asbestos contamination.
Johnson & Johnson’s History With Asbestos in Baby Powder
The first mention of Johnson & Johnson’s tainted talc dates back to the late 1950s. J&J’s consulting lab tested samples of talc from their Italian supplier – describing the samples as fibrous and “acicular” or needle-like tremolite.
Tremolite is a form of asbestos, although not as common and viewed by some as not as harmful as chrysotile asbestos. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that no amount or type of exposure to asbestos is safe. Despite the consulting lab’s findings, the pharmaceutical company moved forward with production of talc items.
Almost 20 years later, between 1972 and 1975, at least three tests conducted by three different labs found traces of asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder. One lab reported levels as “rather high.”
In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began placing limits on asbestos in cosmetic talc products. Johnson & Johnson guaranteed that no asbestos was “detected in any sample” of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973. J&J reportedly did not disclose the traces of asbestos found by the three different labs between 1972 and 1975.
As Johnson & Johnson continued production of its Baby Powder, the first asbestos claim against the pharmaceutical giant came in 1999 from a Texas woman diagnosed with mesothelioma. J&J denied the allegation and reportedly avoided turning over any talc tests or internal reports or documents – resulting in the lawsuit being dropped.
Since 2003, J&J’s talc used to make the brand’s popular health and beauty products has been mined in China by Imerys Talc America – a co-defendant in most of the talc asbestos claims.
FDA Involvement in Johnson & Johnson Talc
The FDA, urged to respond to growing public concern about talc, sanctioned tests in 2009 on 34 talcum powder samples – including a bottle of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder and samples of Imerys talc from China. However, the tests found no asbestos.
Mississippi is one of J&J’s many accusers. In 2014, the state’s attorney general claimed J&J violated the state’s consumer-protection laws by refusing to add a cancer warning on its Baby Powder. Because of this case, J&J released internal emails showing that the pharmaceutical company and its talc supplier hired specific scientists to write the 2009 report assessing talc-based powders’ health concerns. The emails also reportedly reveal that the research team changed the final version of the report at J&J’s request. The final report likely influenced the FDA not to require a safety warning.
Johnson & Johnson started receiving a mountain of asbestos lawsuits in 2016. Due to the revelation of crucial information in certain asbestos lawsuits against J&J, claimants were able to pursue the pharmaceutical company for deserved compensation more than ever before.
Claimants believe Johnson & Johnson knew it had traces of asbestos in its Baby Powder and continued selling it – causing a cancer that wouldn’t develop for decades. Throughout the proceedings of thousands of asbestos lawsuits, information has been brought to light proving the pharmaceutical company knew of the dangers but failed to report or adjust its practices.
Reuters Exposes Johnson & Johnson Knowledge of Asbestos
In 2018, Reuters published an article exposing much of Johnson & Johnson’s previously confidential internal reports and documents. The internal information was released for the purpose of Johnson & Johnson lawsuits.
Reuters examined many documents, a deposition and a trial testimony, and found that J&J’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos between 1971 and the early 2000s. Company executives, mine managers, scientists and others knew about the tainted talc and reportedly failed to disclose it to regulatory agencies or the public.
Due to the controversial and accusatory article by Reuters, Johnson & Johnson was urged to respond – only acknowledging that talc is not dangerous. While this is true, the main takeaway from the Reuters article was that J&J allegedly knew it had traces of asbestos in its talc and failed to report it.
After Reuters’ extreme allegations against Johnson & Johnson, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation focused on Johnson & Johnson and its talcum powder manufacturing in 2019. The investigation led to the FDA finding traces of asbestos in Baby Powder.
This discovery marked two milestones:
- It was the first time FDA tests found asbestos in Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder.
- It forced the 130-year-old U.S. healthcare conglomerate recalling 33,000 bottles – the first recall due to asbestos contamination in company history.
Johnson & Johnson Funded Prisoner Experiments Testing Asbestos
Johnson & Johnson collaborated with Albert Kligman – a dermatologist notorious for alleged unethical research – to compare the effect of asbestos and talc on skin. Dr. Kligman injected 10 black male prisoners incarcerated at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison with chrysotile and tremolite asbestos along with a talc injection.
Chrysotile asbestos has the biggest effect on skin – causing granulomas (cells clumped together in a raised area). The effects chrysotile asbestos had on the prisoners were enough to raise eyebrows, but not enough for the company to change its business practices.
To this day, organizations are still pushing to ban chrysotile asbestos. This study conducted in 1971 proved that chrysotile asbestos is possibly the most dangerous form of the mineral. Despite the findings from this study, chrysotile asbestos is still permitted for import to the United States. As recently as April 2022, the EPA proposed a ban on chrysotile asbestos, making large strides towards the ultimate ban of asbestos in the U.S.
Johnson & Johnson “deeply regrets” the company’s involvement in the controversial prisoner testing, yet still defended itself by acknowledging that prisoner testing was an accepted practice at the time the experiments were conducted. This type of defense from Johnson & Johnson has been ongoing since asbestos claims started regarding the company’s talc Baby Powder and other products.
Johnson & Johnson Asbestos Lawsuits and Verdicts
Around this time is when Johnson & Johnson’s large volume of lawsuits began delivering million-dollar mesothelioma verdicts to victims. Below is a summary of verdicts delivered against Johnson & Johnson, proof that many judges and juries believed J&J was responsible for many people’s mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and other diseases.
July 2018: A Missouri jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $4.7 billion to 22 women alleging the company’s talc-based products contain asbestos and caused them to develop ovarian cancer. The verdict consisted of $550 million in compensatory damages and $4.14 billion in punitive damages.
As if the victims hadn’t been through enough, Johnson & Johnson thought the verdict was far too high and appealed. A state appeals court dropped two women from the cause – reducing the verdict to $2 billion; however, in June of 2021, the Supreme Court shut down the pharmaceutical giant’s attempt to further decrease or eliminate the verdict, honoring the $2 billion award.
March 2019: A California jury awarded $29.4 million to a mesothelioma patient who claimed Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder caused her cancer. J&J appealed the decision, sending the case to a California appeals court. The appeals court defended the original verdict – ordering Johnson & Johnson to pay up.
May 2019: A Brooklyn woman sued Johnson & Johnson after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. She was awarded $325 million by a Manhattan jury: $25 million in compensatory damages and $300 million in punitive damages.
February 2020: A New Jersey jury delivered a $750 million verdict to four mesothelioma patients but was eventually lowered to $185 million due to New Jersey law stating punitive damages in a case cannot exceed five times more than compensatory damages. The verdict was thrown out in October 2023 by a New Jersey appeals court.
August 2020: A California woman sued Johnson & Johnson after she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. She was awarded over $26.5 million by a California jury: $20 million for her pain and suffering along with nearly $6.5 million in economic damages.
July 2023: After attempts to file for bankruptcy and avoid lawsuits either were rejected or paused, Johnson & Johnson faced the first talc and asbestos trial in nearly two years. The victim filed a lawsuit blaming Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder for his pericardial mesothelioma, which is a rare cancer forming in the lining of the heart. This cancer is much more rare than pleural mesothelioma or peritoneal mesothelioma, making the case quite unique since not many pericardial mesothelioma lawsuits are filed. The jury awarded the victim $18.8 million, marking the first time in nearly two years that Johnson & Johnson lost a mesothelioma lawsuit.
November 2023: Johnson & Johnson settled two cases after the second attempt to file for bankruptcy. The company settled two cases involving men diagnosed with mesothelioma. The terms of the settlements were not made public, but they were the first two lawsuit settlements since the second bankruptcy filing was rejected. In one of the cases, the patient died and his family continued the personal injury lawsuit.
Punitive Damages and Compensatory Damages
Punitive damages and compensatory damages are two types of compensation coming from verdicts of mesothelioma lawsuits..
Punitive damages is a legal term courts apply to punish the at-fault defendant in a case. Punitive damages also deter the defendant and other similar defendants — in this case, manufacturers of talc-based products, like Johnson & Johnson — from committing the same errors in the future.
Compensatory damages applies to money the plaintiff receives in a case. In mesothelioma lawsuits, compensatory damages are awarded to the patient to compensate for several burdens. These include:
- Paying for medical treatment
- Hiring legal representation
- Lost wages due to deteriorating health
- Pain and suffering
Latest News About Johnson & Johnson and Asbestos
Johnson & Johnson has a long history with asbestos-tainted talc. With new developments at every corner, the company’s relationship with the cancer-causing mineral is far from finished.
In May of 2020, Johnson & Johnson stopped producing its infamous Baby Powder in the United States and Canada. By the end of the year, J&J agreed to pay more than $10 billion in damages after settling over one-thousand asbestos claims.
The National Council of Negro Women filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson claiming that the big pharma corporation has been targeting women of color with its baby powder marketing strategies. According to the lawsuit, an internal memo pointed out the significant use of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder among black women. The memo also reportedly mentions focusing on this demographic will bring “opportunities to grow the franchise.”
Johnson & Johnson Making Asbestos Trust Fund for Talc Liabilities
J&J has now filed for bankruptcy twice and is working the “Texas two-step” approach. This route involves creating a subsidiary company and transferring its asbestos liabilities to the new entity. The newly formed business will then file for bankruptcy – preventing any future lawsuits while also halting current and unsettled asbestos claims.
However, the U.S. court system requires any asbestos company filing for bankruptcy to create an asbestos trust fund to provide financial compensation for asbestos victims. Although the courts implemented asbestos trust funds to protect victims, these accounts pay significantly less than mesothelioma lawsuit settlements.
The attempt to avoid legal claims by splitting assets and liabilities into separate companies is more often referred to as the Texas Two-Step.
Johnson & Johnson followed through with its bankruptcy plan in 2021 – creating its subsidiary “LTL,” solely for the purpose of absorbing J&J’s asbestos liabilities. LTL immediately filed for bankruptcy in North Carolina.
The North Carolina bankruptcy court ruled to move the case to New Jersey, home of Johnson & Johnson headquarters. Johnson & Johnson pledged $2 billion to fund the bankruptcy fund to compensate victims.
In February 2022, Judge Michael Kaplan of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Trenton, N.J. allowed Johnson & Johnson to move forward with the Texas Two-Step plans. However, Judge Kaplan denied the bankruptcy plan and dismissed the bankruptcy case in July 2023.
Johnson & Johnson tried the Texas Two-Step a second time in 2023 by pledging $8.9 billion. However, a judge again denied the attempt and left Johnson & Johnson open to lawsuits from victims. The company currently faces approximately 40,000 claims and more could come.
“This is an encouraging ruling,” said Angela C. Bullock, a mesothelioma attorney at Bullock Campbell Bullock & Harris, PC. “Far too many times, courts have rubber-stamped financially healthy, large corporations’ bankruptcy filings with not enough showing of the requisite ‘financial distress’ they would be but for the bankruptcy protection they seek. The fight for our real victim clients is far from over, but I’m hopeful that with this now second dismissal of J&J’s bankruptcy case, the tide is turning and judges are taking harder looks at these filings and that the big corporations’ ‘Texas Two-Step’ scheme is dead.”
Johnson & Johnson to End Sale of Talc Baby Powder Worldwide
Despite Johnson & Johnson’s continuous legal battles with asbestos claims, company shareholders rejected a proposal to discontinue global baby powder sales during their annual shareholder meeting last month. Johnson & Johnson pulled baby powder from the North American market back in 2020 but continued to push sales worldwide.
In August of 2022, the corporation announced plans to cease the production and sale of it’s controversial talc-based baby powder worldwide. In the announcement, J&J also unveiled a new brand of baby powder, Vivvi & Bloom, with a corn-starch base — instead of talc.
This year’s annual shareholder meeting also included a proposal for a Third Party Racial Audit – which was accepted by the board. Organizations across 51 countries have called for Johnson & Johnson to halt production of its talc Baby Powder. J&J’s acceptance of the racial audit is a giant leap towards potentially eliminating Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder from markets everywhere.
Receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis can be extremely stressful to a patient and their family – putting everyone involved in a state of anxiety and despair. Finding an experienced lawyer devoted to exposing unethical corporate health and safety practices can help patients and their families seek justice, one way of finding comfort during an upsetting and life-altering situation.
Because of the hard work and dedication of many asbestos attorneys involved in Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder lawsuits, thousands of asbestos exposure victims received justice. Although their cancer may not go away, and they will never get lost time back, they received the compensation they and their families deserved. Mesothelioma compensation does not fix everything, but it helps deter corporations like Johnson & Johnson from neglecting the health and safety of its consumers.
Sources & Author
- Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder. Reuters Investigates. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/johnsonandjohnson-cancer/. Accessed 4/16/2022.
- Bloomberg: Court docs reveal J&J’s role in prison tests comparing talc to asbestos. MedCityNews. Retrieved from: https://medcitynews.com/2022/03/bloomberg-court-docs-reveal-jjs-role-in-prison-tests-comparing-talc-to-asbestos/. Accessed: 4/17/2022.
- J&J says it regrets injecting prisoners with asbestos, but such experiments were ‘widely accepted’ at the time. FiercePharma. Retrieved from: https://www.fiercepharma.com/pharma/jjs-funding-prison-experiment-surfaces-amid-ongoing-talc-litigation. Accessed: 04/17/2022.
- Johnson & Johnson Responds To Recent News Coverage on Talc. Johnson & Johnson. Retrieved from: https://www.jnj.com/our-company/johnson-johnson-responds-to-recent-news-coverage-on-talc. Accessed: 05/03/2022.
- Unsealed Emails Show How J&J Shaped Report on Talc’s Links to Cancer. Bloomberg. Retrieved from: https://www.jnj.com/our-company/johnson-johnson-responds-to-recent-news-coverage-on-talc. Accessed: 05/04/2022.
- J&J recalls 33,000 bottles of baby powder as FDA finds asbestos in sample. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-johnson-johnson-talc/jj-recalls-33000-bottles-of-baby-powder-as-fda-finds-asbestos-in-sample-idUSKBN1WX1L3. Accessed: 05/11/2022.
- 2022 Johnson & Johnson Proxy Statement. Johnson & Johnson. Retrieved from: https://www.investor.jnj.com/annual-meeting-materials/2022-proxy-statement. Accessed: 05/16/2022.
- Supreme Court Says A $2 Billion Verdict In A Baby Powder Cancer Case Should Remain. NPR. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2021/06/01/1002149828/supreme-court-johnson-johnson-talc-verdict-ovarian-cancer. Accessed: 05/17/2022.
- Johnson & Johnson must pay $18.8 million to California cancer patient in baby powder suit. CNN. Retrieved from: https://www.cnn.com/2023/07/18/business/johnson-and-johnson-baby-powder-suit/index.html. Accessed: 07/20/2023.
- J&J settles first cases to go to trial after failed bankruptcies. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/legal/jj-settles-first-talc-cases-go-trial-after-failed-bankruptcies-2023-11-16/. Accessed: 11/18/2023.
Sources & Author