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Investigation alleges J&J knew its powders have cancer-causing asbestos but hid the info

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Reuters investigation report on Johnson & Johnson talc powders was released in the US Friday. J&J has rejected the findings of the report.

Bengaluru: A new investigation has alleged that American multinational Johnson & Johnson was aware that its talc powders, including the famous Baby Powder, contained cancer-causing asbestos but the company hid the information from regulators and the public.

The investigative report by Reuters was published in the US on Friday.

The findings came to light after several women, who suffer from ovarian cancer and mesothelioma, accused J&J of knowingly allowing asbestos in its products causing the cancers in.

J&J is caught in a separate controversy in India for allegedly supplying faulty hip implants. It has been ordered to compensate patients who suffered injuries from the implants.

The very first allegation was made all the way back in 1957, while the first lawsuit was filed in 1997. The Reuters report details how two of J&J’s products — Baby Powder and Shower to Shower — are linked to asbestos exposure and related cancers.

The report traces all the cases of known complaints against J&J, providing a timeline of important lawsuits and company statements.

In the 1970s, a team at team at Mount Sinai Medical Center started looking into the link between talcum powder and asbestos, given the knowledge that talc is often laced with asbestos naturally. The team found asbestos in talcum powder samples and informed New York City’s environmental protection chief, who promptly announced it.

J&J categorically denied that its product contained asbestos.

Then, another Mount Sinai Medical Center researcher performed his own individual tests and concluded that J&J products did contain asbestos. Even Dartmouth college, among other institutions, independently tested and confirmed its presence.

J&J then started its own X-ray scanning technique that reduced asbestos approved for packaging in talc. It targeted for 1 per cent allowable tolerance in the Baby Powder, but the US FDA did not approve the limit.

In court, J&J was accused of selectively revealing data to further its interests. This was used by a judge who ruled that the corporation was not representing its results right.

During testing, J&J also allegedly engaged in manipulative behaviour (of the data). Additionally, it allegedly failed to put into place recommendations provided by expert panels. The company relied on scientific studies which showed talc products were free of hazards; these studies were funded by J&J. The firm rejected requests by citizens to carry an asbestos warning on its product.

Also read: Hip implants dent brand Johnson & Johnson, patients begin questioning other devices

J&J, baby powders, and talc

Talc is a common ingredient used across powders for topical application because of its moisture absorbing capability. It is a mineral composed of magnesium, oxygen, and silicon. It helps keep skin dry and prevents rashes, and is widely used in tropical parts of the world prone to heat and humidity.

As a product, talc is used in numerous other products apart from just talcum powders. It is an important ingredient of plastic, paint, rubber, ceramics, and cosmetics. It is also used in crayons and was detected in the popular children’s brand Crayola in the past.

In its cosmetics application, talc is used in numerous powders. It is used in body powders such as J&J’s Shower to Shower, Yardley, Nivea, Ponds, Santoor, and more. Talc is also an important component of finishing powders used in makeup application.

Johnson & Johnson is a global leader in skincare and health, owning brands like Neutrogena, Tylenol, Splenda, Aveeno, and Band-Aid. More than 80 per cent of its revenue, however, comes from medical devices such as artificial hips and coronary stents, and prescription drugs such as Risperdal (for schizophrenia), topamax (migraine), and Invokana (diabetes).

In India, the market for talcum powder for the body is valued at Rs 700 crore, although this seems to be falling. In the southern parts of India, talcum powder is often also used as a face powder, sometimes with the purpose of whitening. J&J’s flagship baby powder product takes up 13 per cent of the country’s overall talcum powder market share. Other baby powders in the market include the new Himalaya Baby and Dove baby line.

Numerous global lawsuits have led to a flurry of news reports about asbestos in the baby powder brand even in India. Reports in the last three years have focused on litigation, J&J’s shampoo, consumer ban requests, alleged procedure violations and consumer lawsuits.

Consumer products like Baby Powder are financially less profitable but continue to remain assets because of their ‘nurturing’ image, building trustworthiness among the public. In 2014, the company earned $21 million in profits before tax. As with other pharma giants, J&J has been embroiled in lawsuits related to its medical products as well.

The baby powder market is expected to be $660 million by the end of 2019.

Asbestos and Talc

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, and is fibrous and fluffy. It was once hailed as a miracle: Soft and pliant, yet resistant to heat, electricity, and most known chemicals. This made asbestos be used widely in insulation and electric wiring, in the roofs of houses, in furniture, in fire-retardants, in acid-resistant products, mixed in with bricks, cement, clothes, and more. By the early 20th century, asbestos was widely used across the world.

However, in the early 1900s, the negative health effects of asbestos were coming to attention. In towns where asbestos was mined, a number of workers developed lung-related issues. Asbestos ended up going into the lungs of these miners, as well as the ones of those who worked in factories where asbestos-mixed products were being created. This lung disease came to be known as asbestosis.

Asbestos was further linked to two cancers. Mesothelioma, the cancer of the pleura or the soft lining of tissues that surrounds organs. It is often fatal given its aggressive nature. Asbestos exposure is considered to be the biggest risk factor for it.

Ovarian cancer is also caused by asbestos, which deposits itself in the outer layers of women’s ovaries. It is estimated that 1 in 75 women is a risk for ovarian cancer due to exposure to asbestos.

Physically, it comes in six different types of fibrous structures. The most commonly occurring is chrysotile, which is a white fibre. But the most commonly found in cosmetic products is the needle like tremolite.

In nature, talc is often contaminated with asbestos as underground talc deposits occur near asbestos ores. This causes asbestos to get mixed in with talc-based products and, when the cleaning is not efficient, continue to remain in them.

Also read: Researchers have developed a single test to diagnose all types of cancers


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