Those who follow mesothelioma and asbestos-related news will already be familiar with the lawsuits faced by American pharmaceutical giant J&J regarding their baby powder and potential asbestos contamination.
For the uninitiated, J&J’s talc-based baby powder has been the company’s signature product since its inception in the 19th century and has helped create and promote J&J’s safe, family-friendly reputation.
In recent years, however, J&J’s baby powder has been the subject of over 38,000 consumer safety and class action lawsuits, largely alleging that the talc-based baby powder caused serious health problems in consumers. Some of these claims allege that J&J baby powder tainted with asbestos has caused cancer in plaintiffs and their loved ones, including ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.
J&J has continuously maintained that these lawsuits are based on “misinformation”, and that their product has been falsely portrayed as dangerous, further claiming that their baby powder and other talc products have never been carcinogenic or dangerously contaminated with asbestos.
However, consumer rights advocates, plaintiffs, and juries seem to disagree. So far, lawsuits over J&J baby powder contamination have resulted in $3.5 billion in verdicts and settlements. Over $2 billion of those settlements was awarded in a single class action suit brought by 22 women, who claimed that they or their loved ones were exposed to carcinogens via J&J baby powder that had been contaminated with asbestos.
In 2020, J&J stopped selling talc-based baby powders in the U.S., and in August of this year, they announced that they would stop selling talc-based baby powders internationally in 2023. While J&J will not be discontinuing their baby powder, they will be changing the main ingredient from talc to corn starch. They maintain that this decision is sales-based rather than safety-based.
However, recent news indicates that other baby powder companies are taking note of J&J’s legal troubles—and at the very least, that there is an increased awareness of the need to prevent talc-based asbestos-contamination in baby powder.
Less than a month after J&J announced its international recall of talc-based baby powder, Tiger Brands, one of the biggest packaged goods producers in Africa, announced a recall of their Purity Essentials Baby Powder due to trace amounts of asbestos found in their talc test samples.
Tiger Brands, which is South Africa’s largest food producer, is also a major food and packaged goods producer in Cameroon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Mozambique. Tiger Brand products can also be found in South America, primarily in Chile.
Despite the proximity to the J&J announcement, Tiger Foods Chief Operating Officer Noel Doyle stated that the asbestos testing and subsequent September 8th recall “was unrelated to anything linked to J&J issues.” He emphasized that once the current recall is completed, Tiger Brands will continue selling their talc-based baby powder.
“While we found trace levels of asbestos in the raw material”, said Noel, “we’ve acted to recall everything that’s on the market, despite the fact that previous testing did not show any trace levels.”
Baby Powder, Talc, and Asbestos: What You Need to Know
Baby powder, so-named because of its use to prevent diaper rash, is a moisture-absorbing astringent powder that is also commonly used by adults to prevent chafing and for cosmetic purposes. Its traditional primary ingredient is talc, a common mineral made up of silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, and magnesium.
There are several general causes for concern about talc that have been raised by these lawsuits and investigated by medical authorities, scientists, consumer advocates, journalists, and litigators.
One major concern raised by talc-based baby powder (and other talc products) has to do with ovarian cancer, and whether women who regularly apply these products to their genital region are at increased risk. Studies regarding talc and ovarian cancer are still ongoing: some lab studies on rodents showed tumor formation from talc, and while some human studies seemed to indicate a slightly increased risk, the results are still largely inconclusive. Still, the potential link between ovarian cancer risk and genital application of talc-based baby powder has been recognized. In fact, the WHO has classified the use of baby powder and talc powder generally around the genital area as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans.
Another major concern has to do with asbestos contamination. Asbestos is a mineral that was once widely used in manufacturing and construction but has since been found to be carcinogenic—most frequently causing a cancer known as mesothelioma.
Talc and asbestos deposits are often found in similar or adjacent areas and are often mined in similar ways. As a result, when talc is mined and processed, it can sometimes get mixed with asbestos—and talc that is contaminated with any detectable amount of asbestos has been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be carcinogenic.
This means that it is essential for all companies utilizing talc in their products to carefully monitor and test for asbestos contamination, and to immediately act and issue recalls when contamination is found.
Investigations into J&J’s practices suggested that they may not have been doing their due diligence when it comes to asbestos monitoring in their talc supply. In fact, one such investigation, published by Reuters in 2018, found that asbestos had been found in J&J talc products since 1971 at the earliest, continuing throughout the 2000s—and that J&J had been aware of this fact. This investigation—among others—contributed significantly to the strength of the lawsuits against J&J.
Advocates are hopeful that the recent news from Tiger Brands is indicative a shift in corporate thinking, in which companies utilizing talc are beginning to take heed of their responsibility to consumers—as well as the potential repercussions of not upholding that responsibility.