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Darlene Coker knew that she was dying. She knew the mesothelioma had spread to the membranes surrounding her lungs and other organs. It was a rare and deadly cancer that is a signature of exposure to asbestos. It mostly afflicted men who had inhaled asbestos dust in mines and industries such as shipbuilding that used the carcinogen before the risks were known.
Coker, 52, raised two daughters and was running a massage school in Lumberton, Texas. How had she been exposed to asbestos? She wanted answers, according to her daughter Cady Evans.
Fighting for every breath in crippling pain, Coker hired Herschel Hobson, a personal-injury lawyer. He found a suspect: Johnson’s baby powder. Coker had used the powder on her children and on herself her entire life. Hobson knew that talc and asbestos often occurred together in the earth and mined talc could be contaminated with the carcinogen. Coker sued Johnson & Johnson alleging that “poisonous talc” in the baby powder was her killer.
Johnson & Johnson denied the claim. The company said that baby powder is asbestos-free. As the case proceeded, Johnson & Johnson avoided handing over the talc test results and other internal company records Hobson requested to make Coker’s case against the baby powder.
She had to drop the lawsuit. Hobson said, “When you are the plaintiff, you have the burden of proof. We didn’t have it.”
That was 1999. It has been two decades and now the information sought by Coker and Hobson is becoming public. Johnson & Johnson has been compelled to share thousands of pages of internal reports, company memos, and other confidential documents with lawyers for 11,700 plaintiffs who are claiming the company’s talc caused their cancers – including thousands of women with ovarian cancer.
Reuters was able to examine several documents, deposition, and trial testimony. These things prove that from at least 1971 through the early 2000s, the company’s raw talc and finished powders would sometimes test positive for small amounts of asbestos. Additionally, company executives, managers of the mines, scientists, doctors, and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address the situation while failing to notify the public.
According to NBC news, “the documents also depict successful efforts to influence U.S. regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientific research on the health effects of talc.”
A small number of the documents were produced at trial and cited in media reports. Most of them were shielded from public view by court orders which allowed Johnson & Johnson to turn over thousands of confidential documents. These contents were reported by NBC news for the first time.
In 1976, as the FDA was weighing limits on asbestos in cosmetic talc products. Johnson & Johnson assured the regulator that asbestos was not “detected in any sample” of talc between December 1972 and October 1973. It neglected to tell the agency that a minimum of three tests by three different laboratories from 1972 through 1975 had found asbestos in the company’s talc – in one case at levels reported as “rather high.”
Most of the asbestos reports Johnson & Johnson had done internally that Reuters reviewed did not find asbestos. Although Johnson & Johnson’s testing methods have improved over time, they have always had limitations that allow trace contaminants to go undetected – and it should be noted that only a small fraction of the company’s talc is tested.
The WHO and other authorities recognize no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Most people exposed to asbestos never develop cancer, for some reason, small amounts of asbestos are enough to trigger cancer years later. Just how small an amount has not been established. Many plaintiffs allege that the amounts inhaled while dusting themselves with the tainted baby powder were enough.
By Jeanette Smith
NBC News: Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its baby powder
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