Asbestos in Talc: History and Developments

Testing has found asbestos in some baby powder products, and a number of consumers suffering from cancer have filed lawsuits.

Talc is a natural substance found in common household products, such as baby powder and cosmetics. Talcum powder has been widely used for more than 100 years, and its safety hadn't really been called into question until relatively recently. With a number of studies and thousands of lawsuits alleging a link between talcum powder and cancer, let's take a quick tour of the legal landscape.

How Does Asbestos Get Into Talcum Powder?

When talc occurs in nature, it’s often found close to naturally-occurring asbestos. This means that freshly-mined talc will sometimes already contain asbestos as a natural part of gathering the raw material. But this asbestos-contaminated talc sometimes finds its way into makeup and baby powder.

In late 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) alerted consumers that a sample from a single lot of Johnson's® Baby Powder had revealed the presence of asbestos. The FDA also announced a voluntary recall by Johnson & Johnson of this specific product lot (around 33,000 bottles). All other bottles remained on store shelves, and supply continued until May 2020, when Johnson & Johnson announced that it would stop selling Johnson's® Baby Powder products across North America. Retailers would be allowed to sell any remaining stock, and the company's cornstarch-based powders would still be available.

With the identification of asbestos in products containing talcum powder, along with studies linking asbestos in talcum powder to cancer in humans, there has been a wave of lawsuits. Many of these cases have resulted in verdicts ordering defendants like Johnson & Johnson to pay large damages awards to plaintiffs.

Talcum Powder-Asbestos Lawsuits and Verdicts

Below are a few noteworthy verdicts involving plaintiffs who've claimed that asbestos-contaminated talcum powder in a product they used caused their cancer. Many of these cases involve Johnson & Johnson as a defendant.

May 2017: $110M Verdict for Plaintiff (reversed on appeal)

A Virginia woman brought suit in a Missouri state court against Johnson & Johnson and Imerys Talc America, Inc. She claimed her ovarian cancer came from 40 years of using Johnson's® Baby Powder. The jury agreed, although an appeals court later overturned the verdict.

April 2018: $117M Verdict for Plaintiff

A New Jersey jury agreed with a man who said that not only did Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder cause his mesothelioma, but the company knew the talc material it was using to make baby powder contained asbestos. The $117 million award consisted of compensatory and punitive damages against both Johnson & Johnson as well as its talc supplier, Imerys Talc America, Inc.

July 2018: $4.7B Verdict for Plaintiffs

A St. Louis jury awarded 22 women $550 million in compensatory damages and $4.14 billion in punitive damages. This is one of the largest verdicts in U.S. history. The plaintiffs argued that asbestos in Johnson's® Baby Powder caused their ovarian cancers. In June 2020, an appeals court upheld the verdict but reduced the award (see below).

December 2019: Defense Verdict for Johnson & Johnson

A St. Louis jury sided with Johnson & Johnson and concluded that more than 30 years of using Johnson's® Baby Powder did not cause the plaintiff's ovarian cancer. Johnson & Johnson successfully argued that the plaintiff’s endometriosis contributed to her cancer.

February 2020: $750M Punitive Damages Verdict for Plaintiffs (later reduced to $186M)

A New Jersey state court jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay four plaintiffs $750 million in punitive damages on top of $187.5 million in compensatory damages. The four plaintiffs alleged that not only did asbestos-tainted baby powder cause their mesothelioma, but Johnson & Johnson was recklessly indifferent when it hid from the general public that it was selling baby powder containing asbestos.

June 2020: Appeals Court Orders Johnson & Johnson to Pay $2.1B

An appeals court in Missouri upheld a verdict against Johnson & Johnson, but reduced a $4.7B award handed down to plaintiffs by a St. Louis jury in July 2018 (described above). The appeals court awarded $500 million in compensatory damages and $1.62 billion in punitive damages (reduced from $550 million and $4.14 billion) to a group of women who developed ovarian cancer after using Johnson & Johnson's talc-based products. J&J's likely next step is an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.

With more than 10,000 cases pending against Johnson & Johnson alone, these cases represent just a fraction of asbestos-talcum powder litigation.

What Happens Next?

Talcum and baby powder will continue to be used in various consumer products, and those products will remain on store shelves. While a number of plaintiffs' verdicts have been overturned on appeal, many thousands of cases are still in the court system, with many more yet to be filed. Some of the newer lawsuits have included cosmetic companies as defendants, such as Revlon Inc.

If you're thinking about filing a lawsuit over health problems linked to the presence of asbestos in a talc product, it's important to understand the importance of obtaining a clear diagnosis. For information that's tailored to your situation, learn about finding the right attorney for you and your talc-asbestos lawsuit.

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