LOS ANGELES – A lead scientist for Imerys Talc America Inc., the talc mining company that supplies Johnson & Johnson with the talc used in its baby powder, said testing showed no asbestos.
“Based on your 24 years of experience and all the tests you have analyzed, does Imerys Vermont talc contain asbestos?” Peter Masaitis the attorney for Johnson & Johnson asked.
“It does not,” responded Julie Pier, mineralogical and geology analyst for San Jose-based Imerys Talc America.
“Do you currently use Johnson & Johnson baby powder?” Masaitis asked.
“I do,” Pier said. “I used it on my four children when they were little. I don’t have any concerns.”
The attorney for the plaintiff, Carolyn Weirick, argued the testing done on talc baby powder is not full-proof.
Weirick is suing Johnson & Johnson claiming the baby powder she used for decades caused her to develop mesothelioma, a rare and fatal cancer.
Imerys Talc America is a co-defendant in the case and has its own defense lawyers.
Coverage of the trial in the Los Angeles Superior Court is being streamed courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
During Thursday’s session, Pier described to a jury testing of talc, a mined mineral rock that for 100 years has been ground up into a powder and sold by Johnson & Johnson as a cosmetic to keep babies and adults dry.
Pier said today’s technologies include microscopes so sensitive they can detect particles tiny enough to float in ambient air.
“Asbestos is very rare,” she said. “It requires very specific geologic conditions to form involving the right chemistry, temperature and pressure.”
In previous years Johnson & Johnson received talc from mines the company owned in Vermont. Pier said the conditions there were not right for the formation of asbestos.
“It (asbestos) requires rocks pulling apart and causing voids,” she said. “Asbestos grows in the voids. We have no information that in Vermont this was the geologic environment.”
Pier said a microscopic technology called polarized light microscopy (PLM) had proven adept at spotting long fiber materials of the kind that indicate asbestos.
Masaitis displayed a 1992 Vermont ore testing report.
“What does this report tell us about chrysotile or any amphibole (asbestos related minerals)?” he asked.
“There was nothing detected,” Pier responded.
Scientists in the report also labeled some mineral samplings NQ, meaning “not quantified,” meaning some trace of amphibole might be present in a sample, but not enough to detect by another technology called “X-ray diffraction.”
Defense lawyers during the trial have made the point that testing of the talc took place not only in Johnson & Johnson’s in-house labs and those at Imerys Talc America, but also outside independent labs including facilities at Harvard University and the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago.
Pier said testing methods can detect particles sized at eight-ten-thousands of a percent, or three-one-millionths of a percent.
“What does this mean?” Masaitis asked.
“It means the sensitivity of the (testing) method is very high,” Pier said.
Under cross examination Jay Stuemke Weirick’s attorney questioned Pier about testing of Vermont talc that continued past 2003 after Imerys stopped selling the Vermont talc to Johnson & Johnson (today the talc comes from China).
"Is testing of Vermont talc after 2003 relevant to what was in the talc before 2003?” Stuemke asked.
“It shows we have tested all along and it’s the same deposit, but it’s different now because we’re not using the same processing,” Pier said.
“Is it relevant or not?” Stuemke asked again. “You just talked to this jury for a long time about how you continued to test it and you presented the results of that testing to the jury.”
“Argumentative!” the defense lawyer called.
“Overruled,” pronounced Superior Court Judge Margaret Oldendorf.
“It is relevant in certain aspects,” Pier said.
“You rely on that testing, even after 2003, correct?” Stuemke asked.
“I do think all of our tests are important, yes,” Pier said. “After 2003 it doesn’t have to do with Johnson & Johnson. We shifted to a new deposit.”
Stuemke produced a document that stated it is difficult to deal with even minor occurrences of asbestos in talc products because there is no recognized safe level of exposure to asbestos----the presence of any amount of asbestos in talc is a serious problem.
“The limits of X-ray diffraction and PLM (microscopy) in identifying talc has been known by Imerys and its predecessors for decades, correct? Stuemke asked.
“The limitations of the methods we use has been a well-known thing, yes,” Pier answered.
Stuemke displayed a workshop study done in 1978 by employees of Cyprus Minerals Co. which said some talc products on the market contain asbestos minerals the most common being tremolite and anthophyllite. The study concluded that asbestos-related chrysotile has also been found.
“I believe this was talking about some competitor talc of ours that was used for industrial purposes,” Pier said.
Stuemke exhibited a power point demonstration document authored by Pier in which she described three impacts of what was called a false negative, testing that says there’s no asbestos in talc when in fact there is.
The three impacts listed were potential worker health problems, public health issues and significant litigation potential.