Nearly 50 years ago, Johnson & Johnson became aware that a growing number of talc miners were more likely to be diagnosed with lung disease and cancer, suggesting a potential safety risk to consumers who used talcum powder products. The company actively worked to counter the data, according to a Reuters investigation.
Johnson & Johnson’s applied research director, in a “strictly confidential” memo addressing studies that questioned the safety of talc, wrote to managers of the company’s signature talc-containing product – Johnson’s Baby Powder – its strategic plan: “we minimize the risk of possible self-generation of scientific data which may be politically or scientifically embarrassing.”
As a result, Johnson & Johnson began to twist research in its favor, beginning with an early 1970s study commissioned and paid for by J&J involving nearly 2,000 Italian talc miners. The consumer health care giant told scientists hired by the Italian talc exporter the results it wanted, specifically data that “would show that the incidence of cancer in these subjects is now different from that of the Italian population or the rural control group,” according to a letter by J&J’s then-director of medical affairs.
The medical director hired a ghostwriter to rework the data and, in 1976, an article about the research was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, with the conclusion that there was “no carcinogenic effect attributable to pure talc.”
But at least one independent study suggested otherwise. In 1979, a study in the Journal of Environmental Pathology and Toxicology reported that talc miners had a significantly higher risk of respiratory cancer death. A follow up study nine years later showed that at least one of the miners had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is a mineral mined from the earth in much the same fashion and proximity as talc.
J&J faces thousands of lawsuits claiming its talc-containing products are contaminated with asbestos and cause cancers including mesothelioma and ovarian cancer.