Former Johnson & Johnson safety officer testifies in talc trial that company made safety a priority

By John Sammon | Aug 29, 2018

LOS ANGELES – A lay witness for Johnson & Johnson said Monday in a taped deposition filmed last April that the company’s talc powder is clean of asbestos, refuting plaintiff Carolyn Weirick’s allegations that the company’s baby powder caused her to develop mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a rare form of terminal cancer for which there is no cure.

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

“Does your family use Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder?” Peter Bicks of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, attorney for Johnson & Johnson, asked.

“Yes,” responded John Hopkins, a former products safety officer and toxicologist for Johnson & Johnson from 1976 to 2000. Hopkins today runs his own independent toxicology consulting firm.

“Did you have concerns for your family about the safety of using Johnson & Johnson powder?” Bicks asked.

“No, none whatsoever,” Hopkins responded. “It’s in my house at the moment.”

Hopkins testified the company's testing of talc was thorough and continuous. Displayed for the jury on a slide projection was the company credo which read, “We believe our first responsibility is to doctors, nurses, patients, mother and fathers and all others who have used our products. We are responsible to the community in which we live and work. We must be good citizens.”

“To what extent did this statement guide how you do your job?” Bicks asked.

“It is the credo,” Hopkins said. “It has several paragraphs that guide how our employees operate and behave. Our first responsibility is to the people who use our products.”

The credo also noted that the company had a final responsibility to its stockholders.

“If you get everything else right (research and development), then the company will succeed,” Hopkins said.    

Hopkins said the company had tested its talc powder products by following set industry standards.

“You look at the raw materials and the safety data, and you put all the available information together, asking things like does it irritate the skin or cause effects inside the body - hopefully, no. The product is created and evaluated in clinical studies,” he said.

Hopkins said the company had even been criticized for being too perfectionist as he put it, “going over the top” in its testing of the talc.

“They still go ahead and do the (additional) test, it’s still the case today,” Hopkins said.

“Would you ever sell a product if there was a serious concern about safety?” Bicks asked.

“No,” Hopkins answered.

“Would Johnson & Johnson ever sell a product knowing it could cause cancer?” Bicks asked.

“No.”

“In the last 50 years, how often has testing been done?” Bicks asked.

“Ore (talc) is tested on a frequent basis,” Hopkins said, “on a biweekly basis. In recent years, it’s been tested tri-weekly with larger samples, then monthly with more confidence.”

Johnson & Johnson got its talc from mines in Vermont, Italy and after 2003, in China. Up until 1964, J&J owned its own mines but in the 1980s sold them to mining companies who acted as suppliers.

Hopkins said testing was done by Johnson & Johnson but also by independent labs such as the McCrone Group laboratory in Illinois and RJ Lee Group in Pennsylvania. In addition, testing was done by university labs such as the Harvard School of Public Health.

Hopkins said the company worked with regulatory agencies such as the Food & Drug Administration to ensure product safety.

Bicks referred to a report on the results of talc sampling done in the 1970s by Dr. F.D. Pooley of the University College in Wales.

“What is this report telling you?” he asked.

“There is no asbestos in Italian talc,” Hopkins said.

Another document stated that geologic studies had shown that Vermont talc contained no asbestos.

Some of the reports identified findings of traces of tremolite, a mineral that can sometimes contain asbestos. Hopkins noted that findings used the word tremolite but not tremolite asbestos.

Hopkins was asked for his conclusion on the basis of such information.

“The conclusion is the talc used in Johnson & Johnson powder is free from asbestos,” he said.

In a projected slide, Bicks exhibited correspondence from the 1980s in which a citizens’ petition had asked for Johnson & Johnson to put a warning label on cosmetic talc. The FDA responded that it was not necessary, stating in a letter “We find no basis for the agency to conclude there is a health hazard in cosmetic talc."

“The quality of the talc had improved and even when asbestos was present, the levels were so low that no health hazard existed,” Bicks said.

“That’s what the FDA stated,” Hopkins agreed.

“Even though the FDA said that, did Johnson & Johnson always make efforts to make sure there was no asbestos in talc?” Bicks asked.

“That has always been the aim,” Hopkins answered.

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