Generations of mothers know these are the advertising promises behind Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder, the talc product with a fragrance that is among the most recognizable in the world.
But in 1999 it was a much different reality for Darlene Coker. The mother of two and manager of a massage school was dying from mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer normally found in workers exposed to asbestos fibers while on the job. Darlene wanted to know how she could have contracted this deadly disease.
The answer: the Johnson & Johnson baby powder she used on her daughters and sprinkled on herself all her life, according to a lawsuit Darlene filed against the health care giant. Darlene’s lawyers knew that talc, the key ingredient mined from the earth for baby powder, often occurs with asbestos. But when they requested records from the company, Johnson & Johnson was successful in holding back its own test results on the presence of asbestos in its talc supplies. Darlene was forced to drop her lawsuit before she died at the age of 63.
Now, almost 20 years later, multiple women have successfully picked up where Darlene left off. Decades worth of talc test results and internal memos have been uncovered during recent trials that indicate Johnson & Johnson was not only aware that their flagship product might be tainted with deadly asbestos, but that they also tried to bury the evidence.
Timeline to Justice
Nearly 12,000 cervical cancer and mesothelioma patients have sued Johnson & Johnson, alleging that asbestos found in talc caused their illness. Company documentation from several of these lawsuits show what Johnson & Johnson knew, when they knew it and what they did about it:
- 1957: A consulting lab finds tremolite in Johnson & Johnson talc, one of the six minerals that are classified as asbestos.
- 1967: Traces of tremolite are again found in a different talc mine.
- 1969: The Johnson & Johnson executive in charge of the talc supply asks a company doctor, “How bad is Tremolite medically, and how much of it can safely be in a talc base we might develop?” The doctor responded by suggesting that company lawyers should be consulted, as “it is not inconceivable that we could become involved in litigation.”
- 1971: The FDA opens an inquiry into the possibility of asbestos-linked talc products. Johnson & Johnson responds with a statement: “Our 50 years of research knowledge in this area indicates that there is no asbestos contained in the powder manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.”
- 1973: An internal memo admitted to actions that influenced an independent study by the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health concerning the health of talc miners.
- 1993: A Johnson & Johnson memo reveals that records at a Vermont mine, the main source of Baby Powder talc from 1966 until 1990, were destroyed by mine managers while the company still owned the business.
Last December, Johnson & Johnson lost a motion to reverse a massive $4.7 billion verdict in favor of 22 women with ovarian cancer who say that the company knew about a link between talc and asbestos.
Missouri Circuit Court Judge Rex Burlison said in his ruling that there was “substantial evidence” of “particularly reprehensible conduct” by Johnson & Johnson, adding that executives “knew of the presence of asbestos in products that they knowingly targeted for sale to mothers and babies, knew of the damage their products caused, and misrepresented the safety of these products for decades.”