How much did Johnson & Johnson really know about asbestos contamination of the talc it used in its Baby Powder? A federal grand jury has been impaneled by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) to find an answer to just that question.
Since the first cancer lawsuits over talc were filed in 2016, Johnson & Johnson has been insisting that its talc has never contained asbestos, despite the fact that a dozen juries have found sufficient evidence to prove otherwise. Now, the DoJ has launched an investigation in order to determine whether or not Johnson & Johnson was simply careless or has been deliberately lying for the past 50 years or more.
The evidence so far does not bode well for the New Jersey-based company that once claimed to be “The Most Trusted Brand in America.” First of all, there is the actual science behind the issue: like talc, asbestos is a silicate mineral. While their respective crystalline structures differ, they are geologically related and are regularly found in neighboring deposits. This is one reason that asbestos cancer has been an occupational disease associated with talc mining.
There is also the question of talc plaintiffs who suffer from mesothelioma, a form of cancer that attacks the viscera, or lining of the internal organs. While there is evidence indicating that mesothelioma can result from radiation exposure, 80 percent of cases are due to exposure to a variety of asbestos known as amphiboles, the fibers of which are like hard, microscopic needles (as opposed to the more common chrysotile asbestos fibers, which are curly and somewhat softer).
The most compelling evidence against Johnson & Johnson, however, has come from its own company records. The company's claim is based on reported “safety tests” that allegedly show its talc to be asbestos-free. However, discovery in recent lawsuits has turned up internal memos going back to the 1960s in which its own scientists reported talc contamination, warning of the health risks to consumers as well as the potential legal consequences for the company itself.
While Johnson & Johnson continues to proclaim that its talc was free of asbestos and attacks scientific evidence to the contrary, federal investigators are digging even deeper into those internal memos. The company has reportedly also started to set aside funds for the purpose of resolving cancer claims. According to analysts at Bloomberg, settling all of those claims may cost as much as $15 billion – which, based on its SEC filing for 2018, is nearly equal to the company's net income for the year and almost 10 percent of its total assets.
Depending on the outcome of the current federal investigation, Johnson & Johnson may wind up facing criminal penalties in addition to civil liabilities – which could add several billions of dollars to the cost of its day of reckoning.