Johnson & Johnson Co. announced Tuesday that it will stop selling its once popular talc baby powder in the United States and Canada as the company has been hit by a wave of lawsuits claiming the product causes cancer.
Introduced in 1894, Johnson’s Baby Powder has been the recent target of thousands of multi-million dollar lawsuits alleging it contains toxic asbestos, which has reportedly been linked to ovarian cancer.
Despite the allegations, the company maintains the product is safe.
Baby powder sales have dropped 60% in the past three years because of the bad publicity, according to Financial Times.
The shutdown of the product comes as the company downsizes its product line and enacts social distancing measures at its factories amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The chair of Johnson & Johnson’s consumer health division blamed falling sales on a persistent ad campaign paid for by lawyers seeking clients to sue the company. More than 19,000 baby powder claims have been filed so far.
The company said it would continue selling the powder outside North America, which accounts for about 20 percent of its total market.
Johnson & Johnson also sells a cornstarch-based baby powder that will continue to be sold in North America.
“Johnson’s Baby Powder will continue to be sold in other markets where there’s significantly higher demand, and where consumers are not confused by misleading litigation advertising,” Kathleen Widmer said.
Federal authorities began investigating in 2019, and issued subpoenas to the company.
A regulator with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found traces of asbestos in the company’s baby powder, but Johnson & Johnson refuted that, although the company did initiate a voluntary recall of Johnson’s Baby Powder over concerns of asbestos contamination in October 2019.
The company issued a statement at the time, saying it “has a rigorous testing standard in place to ensure its cosmetic talc is safe and years of testing, including the FDA’s own testing on prior occasions — and as recently as last month — found no asbestos. Thousands of tests over the past 40 years repeatedly confirm that our consumer talc products do not contain asbestos.”
The FDA test found chrysotile asbestos contamination in samples from a bottle purchased online, according to the company. The levels of asbestos in the lot were measured at 0.00002%, according to the FDA.
But the company stood firm on the safety of the product, saying it could not confirm whether cross-contamination of the sample caused a false positive, or whether the sample was taken from a bottle with an intact seal or whether the sample was prepared in a controlled environment. It also could not confirm whether the tested product is authentic or counterfeit.
“Decades of scientific studies by medical experts around the world support the safety of our product,” the company said, according to Financial Times. “We will continue to vigorously defend the product, its safety and the unfounded allegations against it and the company in the courtroom.”
In 2017, a jury in California awarded $417 million in damages after a woman said that she developed ovarian cancer after using the company’s baby powder.
Eva Echeverria said she used the powder up to twice a day for four decades, continuing after her 2007 diagnosis of ovarian cancer. She stopped using it in 2016 when she heard about a woman who said she became ill after using the powder and filed suit against Johnson & Johnson.
Another woman in Virginia was awarded $110.5 million in a similar case that same year.
Three other women had been awarded more than $300 million in their cases.
Most of the judgments are currently under appeal.
The company is currently appealing a class-action suit where it was ordered to pay $4.7 billion in damages to 22 women who alleged their cancer was caused by the product.
Asbestos is a “naturally occurring mineral that is often found near talc, an ingredient in many cosmetic products,” according to the FDA. But in some cases — typically if the fibers are released into the air — they can enter a person’s body and subsequently become trapped in the lungs or in the digestive tract if swallowed, according to Oregon State University.
The body cannot break down these fibers once they are stuck, which is why exposure to asbestos can cause serious health issues including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma, the university states.
— This is a developing story. Come back to AJC.com for details.
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