In October 2019, the company Johnson & Johnson (J&J) — makers of the world’s top-selling baby powder — recalled a batch of baby powder after government testing found trace amounts of asbestos in at least one bottle. That’s right: baby powder asbestos contamination.
This is not the first time that J&J has run into legal trouble regarding contaminants being found in both their baby and adult products. The company has been battling thousands of lawsuits in recent years.
Multiple people have sued the company over claims that harmful chemicals present in their personal care products have led to health conditions such as cancer.
Who should be concerned over asbestos in baby powder and talcum powder? While babies themselves, and their caregivers, may be at risk if they use baby powder frequently, so far it’s adults who use baby powder for skincare and deodorant purposes who have been coming after J&J the most due to this baby powder asbestos bombshell.
Baby Powder Asbestos Study Results
In the United States, the the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regularly tests products for contaminants. According to J&J spokespeople, the FDA found “minuscule amounts of asbestos” in one bottle of baby powder during routine testing.
Prior to this, no contaminants had been found in previous tests.
J&J reports that after being alerted by the FDA, it then immediately began investigating the presence of asbestos in their baby power products that had been distributed in the prior year. The company decided to recall approximately 33,000 bottles to protect their customers from possible risk of exposure to baby powder asbestos.
Since the test results surfaced, J&J officials have reported to the media that they are “working with the FDA to determine the integrity of the tested sample and the validity of the test results.”
Risks and Dangers
Baby powder contains the soft mineral called talc (or talcum). What is talcum powder?
According to the FDA, it’s a fine white powder made from clay that poses the risk of being contaminated with asbestos. Talc and asbestos often occur together in the earth, and during the mining process talc may pick up and carry asbestos, which is a known human carcinogen.
Asbestos is a “naturally occurring fibrous mineral composed of thin, needle-like fibers. Exposure to asbestos causes several cancers and diseases, including mesothelioma and asbestosis,” according to the Asbestos Website.
Talc powder is used in baby powder and other commercial and food products because it has the ability to absorb moisture and prevent diaper rash. Not all talc contains asbestos, and we know that the majority of products that have been tested by the FDA have not been shown to contain asbestos.
Although J&J says the company works with suppliers that routinely test their talc for presence of asbestos, multiple people have sued the company claiming that its products are not in fact free of this dangerous chemical. Approximately 11,700 plaintiffs now blame the company’s talc for causing them serious illnesses, including cancer.
How can baby powder give you cancer? Talc remains a controversial mineral, but it’s clear from a large body of research that asbestos is harmful and even deadly.
Exposure can lead to lung disease, COPD symptoms, organ failure, ovarian cancer symptoms and mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer that is very hard to control and treat. In fact, asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma cancer.
Inhaled asbestos fibers are not easily removed from the body once someone inhales them. They can become “lodged” in the body, where they seem to trigger inflammatory reactions and mutations in cells, sometimes leading to proliferation of cancerous mesothelioma cells.
Mesothelioma cells can then spread throughout the body, causing dysfunction of vital organs and even death.
J&J Investigation Results
In February 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) initiated an investigation into claims that J&J’s baby powder contains asbestos. The DOJ subpoenaed the company and made it hand over documents concerning results of past contamination tests.
This has come on the heels of more than 15,000 legal proceedings from consumers claiming that talc in baby powder gave them cancer. (The company is also involved in lawsuits involving opioids medications due to the opioid epidemic and other non-baby products.)
J&J has settled out of court in multiple trials focused on contamination of its products, in some cases paying hundreds of millions of dollars, despite that company officials claim thousands of tests over the last four decades have shown that their products are safe.
In 2018, the New York Times investigated the history of asbestos in Johnson & Johnson baby powder. According to the investigation, the company may have known about possible asbestos contamination in their products for more than 50 years but did not warn consumers or recall products.
Reuters also carried out a similar investigation and found evidence that “the company’s powder was sometimes tainted with carcinogenic asbestos and that J&J kept that information from regulators and the public.”
Reuters reports that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, “the company’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.”
J&J continues to deny that its baby powder has ever contained asbestos or is responsible for causing serious illnesses among customers. The company also plans to continue to appeal cases that it has lost.
Who Was Exposed?
Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted. These fibers have been found in many types of products, including cements, drywall compounds, paper, rope, plastics, paints, sealants, powders and adhesives.
Most people who have suffered from known asbestos-related diseases are men in their 60s or older. The Mesothelioma Justice Network reports, “Miners and other manufacturing workers are most likely to be exposed to asbestos.”
Other high-risk jobs include:
- electricity generation
- military service
People who are exposed to airborne talc over long periods of time, such as workers who engage in talc mining for long hours, can inhale asbestos when proper safety protocols aren’t followed. Asbestos particles can also get absorbed into clothes and the skin, making their way into miners’ homes and potentially endangering family members.
When contaminated baby powder is applied to babies, it also puts not only the babies at risk, but also their caregivers, parents, siblings and daycare workers. Talc in the powder can become airborne when the powder is shaken and applied, putting anyone in close proximity in harm’s way for baby powder asbestos contamination.
Adults who apply baby powder to their bodies for various reasons, such as for antiperspirant and deodorant purposes, may also be at risk. For example, a number of lawsuits against J&J have been brought by women with ovarian cancer who say they regularly used baby power in this way.
While J&J remains firm that its current products are safe to use, it’s not clear if the real threats are products that have been used by consumers for the past six decades.
A number of plaintiffs have hired labs to test J&J products over the years. One of those labs found asbestos in a J&J shower product in the 1990s, while another lab found asbestos in more than half of multiple samples of baby powders from past decades.
Asbestos concentrations were found to be “great enough that users would have, more likely than not, been exposed,” according to Reuters.
How Worried Should You Be?
As of Oct. 23, 2019, the FDA says that it “stands by the quality of its testing and results and is not aware of any adverse events relating to exposure to the lot of affected products.” The FDA expects to issue the full results from all of its tests on cosmetic products by the end of 2019.
In the meantime, if you’ve recently purchased a 22-ounce bottle of J&J brand baby powder, then you’re safest option is to stop using it until more research from the FDA becomes available. Those who should be most worried are adults who have used baby powder on their infant children and who sprinkled it on themselves for years, especially if potential asbestos exposure from other causes (like a family member’s occupation) is a concern.
You can request a refund and find out more about the recall through J&J’s website.
J&J states on its website:
If you or someone you care for has bottle of Johnson’s Baby Powder Lot #22318RB, please discontinue use of the product. For additional information, contact our Johnson & Johnson Consumer Care Center by calling 1 (866) 565-2229. Please know that we are working diligently to resolve this matter. Additional information about our talc can always be found at our website, www.FactsAboutTalc.com.
Asbestos-related diseases typically take many years to become diagnosed. If you’ve experienced any signs or symptoms of asbestos exposure, such as trouble breathing or development of cancer, then speak with your doctor right away.
- Does Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder contain asbestos? In the U.S., the FDA is currently investigating J&J’s baby powder asbestos levels to find out.
- It’s not still clear whether use of baby powder can contribute to cancer, lung damage and disease. The reason it’s a possibility is because baby powder contains talc, which can potentially be contaminated with trace amounts of asbestos.
- Multiple baby powder asbestos lawsuits have been filed over the past several decades. While J&J continues to deny that its baby powder is contaminated or harmful, the company has settled some lawsuits with plaintiffs for millions of dollars.
- At this time it’s recommended that consumers stop using Johnson & Johnson baby powder, especially 22-ounce bottles sold over the past several years, until more is known about its safety and the risks of baby powder asbestos contamination are revealed.