Asbestos Prisoner Study May Spell More Problems for Johnson & Johnson

A prison inmate drapes their hands over their cell bars.

Recent legal proceedings have shed light on a previously unknown aspect of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J’s) history. Court documents show the pharmaceutical giant funded prison-based medical experiments in the 1970s. A Bloomberg report shared details of these tests. In one test, researchers paid male inmates to join a study that deliberately injected them with asbestos. Asbestos causes mesothelioma cancer.

The study aimed to compare the effects of asbestos versus talcum powder on the inmates’ skin. J&J talcum powder products periodically tested positive for asbestos from the 1970s to the 2000s.

Regardless of the study results, J&J’s sponsorship of it may cause additional legal woes for the company. J&J has been fighting litigation over asbestos in its talcum powder for nearly a decade. However, only one jury has seen evidence of this prison study.

In that court case, the jury had to decide whether a J&J product caused a woman to develop mesothelioma. Lawyers presented information about the prison study as part of the evidence against J&J. The study may have helped convince jury members that J&J knew its talc contained a cancer-causing material.

Ultimately, the jury awarded a sizable verdict to the woman who attributed her mesothelioma to J&J talc.

A J&J spokesperson has expressed regret over the company’s participation in the study. The spokesperson also noted the tests did not violate research standards at the time.

Bioethics professor Matthew Wynia, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.P., disagrees. In a statement to Medscape Medical News, Wynia pointed to research standards in the 1970s. He explained research standards generally paralleled those of the Nuremberg Code. The code indicates study participants must be free of coercion. Prison inmates are not considered free of coercion.

Do Prison Experiments Show J&J Had Long-Term Knowledge of Asbestos Dangers?

Publicly available evidence has not yet proven J&J understood the carcinogenic nature of asbestos before the 1970s. However, documents dating back more than 40 years show J&J knew their talc sometimes contained asbestos. Those documents also show the company actively covered up this knowledge.

Some may argue these documents demonstrate J&J knew their talc could harm consumers. But several juries have not been convinced of this.

Knowledge of J&J’s asbestos injection prison study may change that. According to one lawyer, these experiments show J&J worried about asbestos in its talc decades ago. If a jury agrees, J&J may have additional legal difficulties.

At least one jury has already demonstrated how this testing may affect lawsuits filed against the company. After seeing evidence of the prison study, a California jury ruled against J&J. That jury awarded $26 million to a teacher who fell ill after years of exposure to a J&J talcum powder product.

J&J no longer sells talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in the United States and Canada. But asbestos-related diseases can take years to develop. For instance, mesothelioma has a latency period of 10 to 50 years. This means asbestos-contaminated talc could still harm people for decades to come.

What People Are Saying About the Holmesburg Prison Experiments

Albert Kligman, M.D., conducted the J&J asbestos injection study at Holmesburg Prison. Kligman also conducted hundreds of other experiments at the prison. At least one study participant has called Kligman “a monster.” Other individuals have weighed in on Kligman’s experiments and J&J’s sponsorship of them.

  • This kind of testing doesn’t seem family friendly…
    – Carl Tobias, law professor
  • Kligman was intentional in racializing his experiments.
    – Michael Krasuski, author
  • The Nuremberg Code says that [incarcerated people] can’t be used as subjects because they are coerced.
    – David Egilman, public health expert
  • [These experiments] show J&J was worried about asbestos in talc decades ago.
    – Joseph Satterley, attorney
  • At the time of these studies … testing of this nature among this cohort set was widely accepted.
    – J&J spokesperson

Future of J&J Talc Litigation Uncertain Despite Prison Experiment Evidence

Despite this recent jury ruling, the fate of nearly 40,000 pending J&J talcum powder lawsuits remains unclear. This uncertainty largely stems from recent legal maneuvers by J&J involving the following actions:

  • Creation of a new subsidiary called LTL Management LLC (LTL)
  • Assignment of J&J’s talc liabilities (lawsuits, verdicts and settlements) to LTL
  • Declaration of Chapter 11 bankruptcy for LTL

Critics say this strategy aims to protect J&J’s assets from victims of its talcum powder. But a recent court ruling found the critics’ arguments unpersuasive. The court allowed J&J to move forward with this “Texas two-step” maneuver.

It is unclear how this will affect current and future victims of asbestos-related diseases caused by contaminated talc.

Asbestos-Laced Talc Victims Can Pursue Justice Through the Courts

Evidence suggests J&J may have profited while knowingly exposing consumers to a carcinogen for decades. Individuals harmed by asbestos in J&J products may be able to gain compensation for their injuries.

Any consumer harmed by asbestos in a J&J product should speak with an experienced asbestos lawyer. The lawyer can help determine the best way to pursue justice and financial compensation.