Johnson & Johnson

Expert Fact Checked

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Jennifer Lucarelli Lawyer and Legal Advisor

For decades, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) is alleged to have knowingly sold asbestos-contaminated baby powder. Research has linked asbestos-contaminated talcum powder to ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. Thousands of victims have filed talc and baby powder lawsuits for their asbestos cancers against J&J.

01. History of Asbestos Use

Johnson & Johnson History of Asbestos Use

In 1886, brothers Edward Mead, James Wood and Robert Wood Johnson founded Johnson & Johnson (J&J) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The company first produced sterile surgical supplies, such as cotton gauze and sutures. Today, J&J is a major global producer of many healthcare products. These include cosmetics, healthcare supplies and personal care products.

As J&J grew, it began creating more consumer products for babies, mothers and families. In 1894, six years after J&J started, the company released its mineral talc-based baby powder. During the mining process, asbestos may contaminate talc. This means talc-based products, such as J&J baby powder, may have some amount of asbestos present.

Quick Facts
  • Years in Operation: 1886 – present
  • Location: New Brunswick, New Jersey
  • Production: Cosmetic, healthcare, hygiene products
  • Asbestos Trust: In development as of 2021

In 1921, J&J began selling Baby Gift Boxes. These contained JOHNSON’S® baby cream, JOHNSON’S® baby powder and JOHNSON’S® baby soap. These, and many other products, helped the company become a household name.

J&J works across many industries as hundreds of different subsidiaries. For instance, J&J owns Janssen Biotech, Inc., McNeil Healthcare LLC and Vogue International LLC.

Evidence shows J&J has been negligent with its talc products’ quality and safety. In recent years, victims have filed many lawsuits against J&J for cancers related to asbestos exposure. The company has recalled and discontinued products, such as its baby powder, over public health concerns.

Johnson & Johnson Tested Its Products for Asbestos

For several years, J&J has been under public scrutiny for product safety, especially concerns about J&J’s baby powder and asbestos contamination. There is evidence the powder has contained varying levels of asbestos over the years. There is also growing evidence that J&J knew about the asbestos contamination risks.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, more than three tests by different labs found asbestos in J&J’s baby powder. One of these tests in the 1970s found “rather high” levels of asbestos. At that time, J&J was using more than 20,000 tons of talc per year.

J&J did not share the asbestos test results with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the general public.

Instead of disclosing asbestos findings, J&J ignored warnings and focused on marketing. The company also tried to persuade the FDA that up to 1% of asbestos contamination was safe. When this was unsuccessful, J&J began promoting alternatives to corporate asbestos regulations, such as self-policing.

J&J claims that if it knew about asbestos contamination, it did not know about the related health risks. There is currently no evidence to show otherwise.

Johnson & Johnson Funded Tests on Talc and Asbestos

Besides withholding test findings, J&J also began funding its own asbestos tests. Internal communications show the company did this to generate the results it wanted. In a memo to managers, J&J describes its intention to “neutralize or hold in check” investigators’ data that questions the safety of talc.

For example, J&J commissioned and funded a talc-mining study in the 1970s. First, the company told researchers its desired results. Then, J&J hired a ghostwriter to redraft the article and present the findings in a journal.

Some studies J&J funded were controversial in ways beyond data control.

Court Documents Show J&J Funded Asbestos Tests on Prison Inmates

J&J funded an asbestos experiment at the Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania. This prison participated in many questionable human experiments. In this J&J experiment, 10 inmates received asbestos injections. The intention was to compare the effects of asbestos to talc.

Documents for the J&J-funded study, led by Dr. Albert Kligman, were first unsealed in a 2021 trial. Jurors heard the results but did not know participants were male, predominantly Black, inmates.

These studies may have legal implications as trials against J&J continue. The public is aware of asbestos in its baby powder and may learn more details about these J&J-funded studies.

02. Contaminated Products

Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Products and Asbestos

J&J’s baby powder has been talc-based since it was first distributed in the late 1800s. Talc is a mineral that often occurs alongside asbestos. As a result, the mining process can often lead to asbestos contamination of talc.

Talc is commonly used in many cosmetic and personal care products. It is not harmful on its own. However, research links asbestos-contaminated talc products to health issues. This includes asbestos diseases, such as ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.

In the 1970s, evidence grew about the health risks of asbestos exposure. The United States began regulating the use of asbestos in products. However, the FDA does not currently require talc cosmetics to undergo asbestos testing before stores sell them.

Amid talcum powder asbestos contamination concerns, J&J increased its baby powder marketing. By the 1990s, its successful marketing strategy focused on Hispanic and Black women. The product was so popular that a marketing director referred to it as a “sacred cow” they had to protect.

J&J denies its baby powder has any asbestos contamination risks. Despite this, by 2020, the company had recalled and discontinued its talc-based baby powder in North America. It has paid billions of dollars to victims who developed asbestos cancers from its talc-based product. Talcum powder lawsuits against the company are ongoing.

Johnson & Johnson Asbestos-Contaminated Baby Powder

In 2018, the FDA began an ongoing survey of asbestos in some cosmetic and personal care products. In 2019, one of these FDA tests found asbestos in a J&J baby powder sample. As a result, J&J recalled 33,000 bottles of powder. The company stated this was precautionary, as its own testing did not have the same findings.

However, many groups have criticized J&J for ineffective and outdated test methods. In 2019, there was a congressional hearing about the best methods to test for asbestos in talc. There was a focus throughout on J&J’s baby powder and the company’s safety practices.

For years, nearly 200 organizations have been calling to ban J&J’s talc-based baby powder. In 2020, J&J stopped selling the talc product in the United States and Canada. Instead, it shifted to only selling baby powder made with cornstarch in these countries.

However, J&J continued selling talc-based baby powder in many other countries. For years, the company stated no plans to stop these global sales. But in August 2022, J&J released plans to stop all sales of talc-based powder by 2023.

The new plans involve J&J using cornstarch in all its baby powders. The company began manufacturing this alternative baby powder in the 1980s. J&J says “evolving global trends” motivated the full switch to cornstarch-based powder. It also says asbestos contamination concerns were not factors in the decision.

03. Asbestos Exposure

Johnson & Johnson and Asbestos Exposure

J&J has made its baby powder with talc for decades. Talc is a powdery mineral, popular in many cosmetic and personal care items. It is often used to absorb moisture, prevent caking and improve the feel of products. When mined, talc can easily be laced with asbestos, as the two minerals develop together.

While there are no known health risks of talc, asbestos is harmful in any amount. Asbestos exposure through talc is linked to cancers, such as mesothelioma and ovarian cancer. Microscopic asbestos fibers are dangerous when someone inhales, ingests or otherwise absorbs them.

J&J’s talc-based powder often creates a cloud of powder during application. In general, the powder is applied to sensitive areas, such as the perineum and inner thighs. These factors allow for inhalation or absorption of the harmful powder.

Secondary asbestos exposure can also occur. After applying baby powder, individuals may unknowingly carry and transfer fibers to others. Asbestos may also linger in the air or on surfaces.

Frequent users of J&J baby powder may worry about mesothelioma or other asbestos cancers. Advocacy groups claim J&J chose profit over people by continuing to sell an unsafe product.

J&J Talc Product Consumers Risk Ovarian and Mesothelioma Cancer

Some research links asbestos-contaminated talc to ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. A number of these studies took place recently when the J&J controversy had publicly begun.

For example, in 2020, researchers published a study on mesothelioma and asbestos-contaminated talc. This case series studied potential sources of asbestos exposure for 75 mesothelioma patients. Researchers concluded mesothelioma can develop after exposure to asbestos-contaminated talc powder.

Another 2020 study looked at the link between talc and 33 mesothelioma patients. Researchers determined talc powder was the sole source of asbestos exposure for all participants. They concluded that exposure to asbestos-contaminated talcum powders can cause mesothelioma.

For over 50 years, J&J has been aware its baby powder may have asbestos contamination. Rather than warn consumers, the company redirected its marketing strategy toward Black women. Internal communications offer insight to J&J’s intentional marketing shift.

In 2010, a radio campaign was targeted at “curvy Southern women 18-49 skewing African American.” The company offered 100,000 samples to churches and other areas throughout Chicago. These marketing choices led to a lawsuit against J&J by a Black women’s advocacy group.

However, the public was unaware of the risks, and many used J&J’s baby powder regularly for years. Evidence shows the risk of asbestos-related diseases increases with the frequency of exposure. Many individuals may still be at risk of developing mesothelioma.

Individuals Impacted by Johnson & Johnson’s Asbestos Use
  • Consumers: One of the groups most at risk of talc-based asbestos exposure is consumers. Frequent J&J baby powder users could also have exposed family members.
  • Miners: Workers may have been exposed to asbestos while mining for talc. Workers may have disturbed asbestos during the mining process, leading to asbestos exposure.
  • Plant workers: Workers at talc supplier plants, like Imerys, may have been exposed to asbestos. For instance, asbestos exposure may have occurred at J&J plants.
04. Asbestos Litigation

Asbestos Litigation Against Johnson & Johnson

In the past decade, many victims of asbestos cancers have filed lawsuits against J&J. In 2018, J&J received its first guilty verdict in an asbestos talcum powder lawsuit. The jury ruled that J&J’s baby powder caused the plaintiff to develop mesothelioma. Since this mesothelioma lawsuit victory, victims have filed and won more cases against J&J.

So far, there are more than 40,000 lawsuits filed against the company. J&J has paid billions in compensation to date but continues defending its product in court. It claims its baby powder is asbestos-free.

While cases against J&J continue to develop, current notable lawsuits include:

  • February 2016: A Missouri jury awarded a plaintiff $72 million from J&J in a talcum powder lawsuit.
  • May 2016: A Missouri jury awarded a plaintiff $55 million from J&J in an ovarian cancer lawsuit.
  • April 2018: A New Jersey jury awarded a plaintiff $117 million from J&J in an asbestos lawsuit. This was the first mesothelioma lawsuit that J&J lost.
  • May 2018: A California jury awarded a plaintiff $21.7 million from J&J in a talc asbestos cancer lawsuit.
  • May 2018: A lawsuit was filed in South Carolina against J&J and Rite Aid. This was the first lawsuit against a retailer for selling asbestos-contaminated talc powder.
  • July 2018: A Missouri jury awarded $4.69 billion in a lawsuit to 22 women and their families. The women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer due to J&J’s asbestos talcum powder. J&J later appealed this, and the verdict was set at $2.11 billion.
  • April 2019: A California jury awarded $29 million from J&J to a mesothelioma victim.
  • May 2019: A New York jury awarded $325 million from J&J in a mesothelioma lawsuit, of which $300 million was punitive damages.
  • October 2020: J&J was ordered to pay more than $100 million to settle more than 1,000 talc lawsuits. This was the first time the company settled lawsuits in bulk.
  • November 2020: A New York jury awarded $120 million to a mesothelioma victim and her husband.
  • June 2021: J&J appealed a $2 billion verdict, which the court rejected.
  • July 2022: A Black women’s advocacy group sued J&J for targeted, harmful ads.

Juries have awarded compensation from J&J to plaintiffs in various asbestos and mesothelioma lawsuits. Financial compensation may be awarded from a mesothelioma settlement or verdict. Experienced lawyers at mesothelioma law firms can help victims navigate asbestos litigation. These mesothelioma lawyers work to secure the compensation victims deserve.

In response to cases in the lower courts, J&J often attempts to appeal the decisions. If successful, appeals may reverse decisions or reduce award amounts. However, J&J does not always succeed in its appeals.

For example, J&J appealed a lawsuit filed by 22 women with ovarian cancer. In 2018, a jury awarded the women and their families $4.69 billion. J&J was able to have the court reduce the award to $2.11 billion. With interest, it has grown to $2.5 billion. J&J appealed again to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. The decision stands at $2.11 billion, plus interest.

Because of the growing number of asbestos lawsuits, J&J is establishing a bankruptcy trust fund to handle ongoing and future legal action.

05. Asbestos Trust Fund

Johnson & Johnson Bankruptcy and Trust Fund Creation

Many asbestos companies have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. During this process, asbestos bankruptcy trust funds are often created. These funds then enable current and future victims to receive compensation. J&J began this process in 2021, intending to put an initial advance of $2 billion into a trust fund. In theory, qualifying victims would file claims against the trust to receive compensation.

However, the method J&J used for this process has fallen under question. First, J&J created a subsidiary, called LTL Management LLC (LTL). J&J claims it created LTL to equitably manage talc-related lawsuits. Two days later, LTL filed for bankruptcy.

Many claim this maneuver was intentionally deceptive and would help J&J avoid some financial consequences. J&J funneled responsibility for asbestos cases to LTL but only allocated an initial advance of $2 billion in assets. At the time, however, J&J was liable for more than $3.5 billion in verdicts and settlements. J&J itself is worth more than $400 billion. In October 2021, a judge reviewed the whole process for legality. In early 2022, the judge ruled that the company could move forward with its plans.

But, in January 2023, a U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia rejected this maneuver. The three-judge panel found insufficient reason for J&J to create a bankruptcy fund. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is for companies in legitimate financial distress. Despite J&J’s claims of good intentions, the court found the company did not meet the requirements. This decision allows victims to resume talc litigation against the company.