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 and Baby 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, and this asbestos-contaminated talc sometimes finds its way into makeup and baby powder.

Is All Talc Contaminated With Asbestos?

No, but without individual testing of every talc-based consumer product on the market, there's no definitive way to know when or where asbestos might have found its way into a specific batch or lot of a certain product. Unlike with medications and certain other health products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't approve cosmetic products like talcum powder before they go on the market. And while the FDA will take action (including testing) if there is a potential safety problem with a cosmetic product, there needs to be sufficient scientific data pointing to a health risk.

The FDA acknowledges the "potential for contamination of talc with asbestos" and the importance of careful selection of talc mining sites and sufficient testing of ore. It would seem that the onus is on manufacturers to insure the integrity and safety of talc sources in their supply chains.

In late 2019, the 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.

Talc-Asbestos Legal Action and Other News

October 2021: Johnson & Johnson Bankruptcy Affects Asbestos Claimants' Rights

Facing over 35,000 lawsuits brought by plaintiffs who allege that their health problems were caused by Johnson's Baby Powder, Johnson & Johnson rolled out a cynical legal strategy to cover its backside, transferring all of its potential asbestos liability to a newly-formed entity (called LTL), and having that entity promptly file for bankruptcy. According to NPR, J&J seeded LTL with about $2 billion to resolve future asbestos-related claims, and a number of plaintiffs will almost certainly be prevented from recovering for the full extent of their harm as a result of J&J's efforts to evade responsibility.

January 2021: Large-Scale Study Finds "No Significant" Link Between Talcum Powder Products and Ovarian Cancer

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found no "statistically significant association" between genital ("perineal") use of talc products like baby powder and incidence of ovarian cancer. The study monitored over 250,000 women, many of whom reported "frequent" and "long-term" perineal use of talc-based powders.

It's important to note that, while this study acknowledged talc's "relationship to" asbestos and analyzed data in relation to a 1976 ban on use of asbestos in cosmetic talc, the researchers did not focus on (or try to differentiate results based on) talc-based products that have tested positive for asbestos—in recent FDA-sanctioned studies or elsewhere.

November 2020: Study Finds Asbestos in 15 Percent of Cosmetic Products

Lab testing of talc-based cosmetics revealed that almost 15 percent of the products sampled contained asbestos, according to a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, which bills itself as a "non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment." Analysis of the study's results shows that the cosmetics industry is doing an inadequate job of screening its supplies of talc, according to an EWG news release. Talc is a naturally-occurring mineral that is often mined in close proximity to asbestos, another natural-occurring substance that is also a known carcinogen.

November 2020: Missouri Supreme Court Lets $2.1B Talc-Cancer Award Stand

The Missouri Supreme Court has refused to hear Johnson & Johnson's appeal of a $2.1 billion verdict in favor of a group of women who alleged that the company's Johnson's® Baby Powder product caused their ovarian cancer.

In June, a Missouri appeals court upheld the verdict against J&J, but reduced the original $4.7B awarded by a St. Louis jury in July 2018 (described below). The appeals court awarded $500 million in compensatory damages and $1.62 billion in punitive damages (reduced from $550 million and $4.14 billion).

J&J's likely next (and final) appeals step is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn or reduce the verdict.

October 2020: J&J Settles 1,000 Baby Powder Lawsuits for $100M

Johnson & Johnson has agreed to pay more than $100 million to settle 1,000 lawsuits in which consumers allege that Johnson's® Baby Powder caused their cancer, Bloomberg reports. That works out to around $100,000 per lawsuit, although there are no details on whether the funds will be distributed equally, or payment will be based on the severity of a given claimant's illness. But the agreements mark "the first set of major settlements in four years of litigation" over the safety of J&J's popular talc products, according to Bloomberg.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

With more than 10,000 cases pending against Johnson & Johnson alone, the cases discussed above 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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