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Report: Johnson & Johnson tried to cover up asbestos in its talc

Reuters recently reviewed internal Johnson & Johnson (J&J) documents and found that, between at least 1971 and the early 2000's, J&J talc products sometimes tested positive for asbestos. Company executives suspected as early as 1957 that their talc products contained asbestos.

J&J is facing over 12,000 lawsuits from people claiming J&J talc products such as baby powder caused their cancers. Ovarian cancer is a common claim in these lawsuits, as many women use Johnson & Johnson baby powder for routine feminine hygiene. A link between ovarian cancer and asbestos was first flagged in 1958, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer confirmed in 2011 that asbestos can cause ovarian cancer. Other lawsuits allege J&K talc products caused mesothelioma.

J&J has defended its talc products as asbestos-free, but its apparent certainty is belied by decades of evidence that company executives, researchers and others have worried over asbestos-positive test results.

Records show J&J aggressively fighting any reports of asbestos in talc

The New York Times detailed instances in which Johnson & Johnson tried to prevent unfavorable reports from being seen by the public.

In 1975, two mineralogists discovered what appeared to be asbestos in Johnson & Johnson's baby powder. One called to warn the company but was rebuffed. Internal memos called him "devious" and his data controversial. Under pressure, the mineralogist canceled plans to present his report at a conference.

The following year, the other mineralogist and some colleagues discovered asbestos in several commercial talc powders, although they did not name any J&J products. But the company demanded that the researchers stop "frightening mothers unnecessarily." The group retracted some of its findings, implying (apparently falsely) that asbestos had been found only in older talc and that newer talc products were safe.

In the early 1970s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioned a test that found asbestos in over half of 11 J&J baby powder samples tested. J&J threatened to sue to keep those test results from being made public. Ultimately, J&J convinced an FDA official that "a release of such untrue information will create a great deal of unwarranted alarm." The official agreed that the information would be released "over my dead body."

According to the Times, corporate documents, government records and interviews with scientists and attorneys indicate that J&J continued trying to discredit research suggesting that its talc products were tainted by asbestos. Meanwhile, there was an internal scramble to improve its own testing -- or even to discontinue using talc.

If juries believe that J&J knew its baby powder was tainted with asbestos but actively kept that information from the public and took no action to correct the situation, the company could be facing significant liability.

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