The case of pharma giant Johnson & Johnson, and the alleged use of asbestos in their talc product, has long been a powder keg which continues to explode. By 2017, over 1,000 women in the US had taken law suits against the company for covering up the possible cancer risk from its ‘Baby Powder’.

The manufacturer has consistently denied that its talc products cause cancer and ever contained asbestos. Over the last 20 years, the company has also been embroiled in a number of actions over other products, including female mesothelioma victims and their families seeking answers to why the firm failed in their responsibility to their millions of customers.

Research identified a type of asbestos fibre used in the talc

Most of the legal actions involve claims that asbestos fibres used in producing talcum powder was the cause of ovarian cancer. However, there are also a smaller number of mesothelioma claim cases alleging that contaminated talc caused their mesothelioma, the fatal incurable cancer of the lung linings. Recent research identified a type of asbestos fibre used in the talc, which was found in the lung tissues of a woman who used the powder and later died from pleural (lung-related) mesothelioma.

In the latest hearing, the multinational firm founded in 1886 was ordered to pay 22 women a total of $4.7 billion (£3.5 billion) – the biggest payment to date – by a US court despite a further 9,000 similar cases waiting to be contested. Previous trials involving Johnson & Johnson saw awards for damages of around $417 million. In one recent case a court awarded the equivalent of $67.2 million (£51.7 million) to the family of a 62 year old woman who died from ovarian cancer.

Countless numbers of household and cosmetic products

From the late 1940s through to the 1980s, it is well-documented that asbestos fibres were commonly used as industrial insulation and fireproofing, especially in textile manufacture, shipbuilding, construction and vehicle assembly. However, the mineral fibres were also widely added as a low cost material strengthener and stabiliser in countless numbers of household and cosmetic products, including talcum powder.

The most used asbestos fibre types were chrysotile (white), amosite (brown) and crocidolite (blue). However, lesser well-known fibre types were also employed, notably actinolite, anthophyllite and tremolite. Anthophyllite possesses high chemical resistance for robust thermal and electrical insulation, and was also used for producing adhesives, plastics, insulation and filling reinforcement materials. Tremolite and actinolite are found only in natural materials, such as talcum powder, and used in a variety of commercially available products.

Company knew talc was contaminated with asbestos

The potential health risks associated with breathing in talcum powder have long been known and investigated. All the women and their families in the recent US case argued that it was the use of the Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder and other cosmetic talc products over many decades that had caused their diseases. They also alleged the company knew that its talc was contaminated with asbestos since at least the 1970s but failed to warn customers about the risks.

The potential for a strong link between the use of their talcum powder and the development of a cancer was mentioned by a Johnson & Johnson medical consultant in a 1997 internal memo. It was only after a 3-year campaign, which included a boycott threat, that the pharma firm agreed in 2012 they would work towards removing the disputed fibres. However, they also continue to argue that “decades of studies show its talc to be safe” and deny that their products cause cancer or that they ever contained asbestos. They also argue that independent analytical tests results were not reliable.

Small particles may not be exactly determined

Current analytical methods for the identification and quantifying of asbestos fibres in talcum products include various light-microscopy technologies. Unfortunately, the results can be severely limited by the ultimate resolution of the light-optical system. As a result, small particles may not be exactly determined. In addition, talc fibres often possess different optical properties, which can further hinder clear analysis. Nevertheless, the presence of asbestos fibres can still be found. By weight, tremolite may be determined at levels as low as 0.10 per cent, chrysotile 0.25 per cent, and anthophyllite at 2.0 per cent in talcum powder.

Today, only fibre-free grade talc of the highest quality and purity is used in cosmetics although some low-grade industrial talc powders may contain a high number impurities, including fibres.