Claims that Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products once contained asbestos continued in a California court last week. On February 6th, epidemiologist Dr. David S. Egilman testified that Johnson & Johnson engaged in “regulatory capture,” where control agencies place the interests of firms or political groups are prioritized over the interests and safety of the public.
Dr. Egilman claims Johnson & Johnson place pressure on certain regulators during the 1970s to “redefine” specific criteria in the testing of their talcum powders, and change their definition of asbestos. These alterations made sure that any amounts of asbestos found in the baby powder manufacturer’s talc were excluded from the test results, and thus did not need to be reported.
To back up these claims, Dr. Egilman produced an internal company letter from the 70s where J&J’s Windsor Minerals Research and Development Manager at the time, Vernon Zeitz, urged the company to embrace a more hands-on approach with regulators. “Most wars are not won in peace talks,” Zeitz wrote, also stating that J&J needs to enlist “‘the most ruthless’ legions to win ‘the war.'”1 Dr. Egilman believes Zeitz’s strong wording and delivery are implications of the company’s intentions to deceive, stating “this letter adequately reflects the actions that Mr. Zeitz and others at Johnson & Johnson took to NIOSH and other studies…”1
Dr. Egilman scrutinized and reprimanded several of Johnson & Johnson’s studies during his testimony, criticizing the testing methods used in these studies for their lack of sensitivity even to detect asbestos. “You can’t say any of these tests established there’s not asbestos,” Dr. Egilman remarked. “You can only say they’re not detected.” 1 Dr. Egilman further stated that in 1989, the talcum mine where Johnson & Johnson received the elements for their products changed hands and during that time, documents that may have helped reveal asbestos within the talc were destroyed.
In fact, before the mill was sold, researchers had administered an epidemiological study of talc mine workers, searching for any signs of cancer due to exposure. The records for those studies, states Dr. Egilman, were unfortunately destroyed as well, preventing any follow up with these workers years later to see if they may have developed cancer from their time in the mines. Mesothelioma, a type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure, typically has a 20-25 year germination period – if exposed to asbestos within those mines Johnson & Johnson used for their world-famous baby powder, those workers might be grappling with their cancers now.
“There’s a lot of missing information,” Dr. Egilman reaffirmed.1