Researcher testifies in Johnson & Johnson trial that asbestos was found in baby powder bottle

By John Sammon | Aug 29, 2018

LOS ANGELES – A nationally known asbestos researcher on Aug. 24 told the attorney for plaintiff Carolyn Weirick that traces of the deadly mineral had been found in her bottle of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder.

Live coverage of the trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court is being streamed courtesy of Courtroom View Network.

“Did you identify asbestos fibers in Mrs. Weirick’s baby powder?” Jay Steumke of Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett, Weirick’s attorney, asked.

“Yes,” answered Dr. William Longo, who is a materials scientist and electron microscope researcher who specializes in asbestos identification for the MAS lab of Suwanee, Georgia. “We found what I would call the anthophyllite (a form of asbestos) series with fibers and bundles in a 14.8-1 ratio.”

An exhibited slide projected for the jury showed that 24,700 fibers had been detected.

Weirick sued Johnson & Johnson over allegations asbestos in the baby powder she used caused her to develop mesothelioma, a fatal illness. The case is among the latest of hundreds of lawsuits filed by women against the baby powder maker across the country, most alleging the company’s talc powder products caused them to develop ovarian cancer.

Longo has served as a leading authority for plaintiffs in earlier trials linking talc powder use and cancer.

“Is analyzing asbestos fibers something you have done throughout your career?" Steumke asked.

“Yes, sir,” Longo said.

“You’ve testified for plaintiffs like mine?” Steumke asked.

“I have,” Longo responded. “About 95 percent of what we do is on behalf of plaintiffs’ attorneys.”

Longo stated he gets paid $550 per hour for his time as a witness.

“How much has MAS billed for asbestos litigation over the years?” Steumke asked.

“We’ve been in business 30 years, and if you averaged it out, approximately $1 million a year,” Longo said.

Longo said asbestos can appear as a single fiber, in a bundle of fibers or a cluster. Guidelines are established for identification. A general rule is that asbestos should be five times longer than it is wide under a microscope and greater than a half-millimeter in size.

“We asked you to analyze Carolyn Weirick’s bottle of baby powder, correct?”

“Yes,” Longo answered.

Longo said Weirick’s bottle of powder presented a challenge for researchers.

“If there was asbestos in it, there would be a low concentration,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of what’s in the bottle would be talc plates.”

Longo explained that separating asbestos from talc powder involved a process in which a high-density liquid is used that is a little bit heavier than the talc, but not the asbestos. This is put in a tube and spun. The asbestos separates and forms on the bottom of the sample.

“You can float the talc and eliminate 99 percent of it,” Longo explained.

“Do you have an opinion whether asbestos fiber has been identified in Johnson & Johnson baby powder in peer-reviewed literature?” Steumke asked.

“Yes, it has,” Longo answered.

“Is there any question in your mind that these fibers are asbestos?” Steumke asked.

The defendant's attorney objected. “Lacks foundation!” he called.

“Overruled,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Margaret Oldendorf said.

“No, there’s no question in my mind that a large percentage of the population is asbestiform, and you look at these single fibers, you’re going to have asbestiform on these also,” Longo said.

Under cross-examination, the attorney for Johnson & Johnson, Warrington Parker of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, disputed testimony from Longo that Johnson & Johnson records had confirmed asbestos in samples, in some cases identifying them as tremolite. Tremolite is a mineral that can sometimes contain asbestos.

“There’s a lot of documents where nothing was found,” Parker said. "How many (J&J) documents used the word asbestos and were not industrial talc or exploratory talc?”   

“I’d estimate a couple dozen,” Longo answered.

“Don’t estimate,” Parker said. “I want the actual number. In 70 years, how many?”

“I can’t give you an actual number. I haven’t counted them,” Longo said. “There’s 70 documents that use the words tremolite and amphibole. You have one that talks about fibers, then you have ones that say absolutely this is asbestos. From what I’ve seen, maybe a dozen.”

“Move to strike,” Parker called, asking for removal of the answer.

Parker asked if Longo had been acting as an expert witness in court since the 1990s.

“That’s correct,” Longo said.

“You’ve testified in deposition or trial between 2,000 and 3,000 times, correct?” Parker asked.

“That’s correct,” Longo said.

“How many times a week,” Parker said.

“Typically one or two times,” Longo said.

“You have no personal knowledge that Mrs. Weirick ever used that (baby powder) bottle?” Parker asked.

“Whether she used it or not I can’t say,” Longo said.

“Did you find tremolite in Mrs. Weirick’s bottle?” Parker asked.

“I didn’t personally,” Longo said.

“Did you find anthophyllite?”

“I didn’t personally find the anthophyllite or tremolite, I verified it, but I wasn’t the one sitting at the microscope,” Longo said.    

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