ALAMEDA — A physician-researcher called as a witness for plaintiff Terry Leavitt told a jury on Thursday that Johnson & Johnson ignored warnings its baby powder contained deadly asbestos and decided not to use more thorough testing methods in what amounted to what one critic described as a “defensive protectionism.”
Though corn starch—which does not cause cancer—was available for use in baby powder, Johnson & Johnson officials continued to use talc powder plaintiff, attorneys contended.
“They (Johnson & Johnson) were told it was essential to use concentration methods,” said Dr. David Egilman, a Brown University epidemiology researcher formerly with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). “They did not.”
The concentration form of testing, separating out substances by spinning them apart before testing under a microscope, was newly developed in the 1970s and had been recommended by researchers as a more effective way to spot asbestos in talc powder.
Coverage of the trial is being streamed courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
Leavitt is suing Johnson & Johnson, claiming her 30 years of use of the baby powder caused her to develop mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lungs that is incurable and fatal.
In another document displayed in the Alameda Superior Court, a doctor in a decades-old correspondence expressed doubt about the safety of baby powder noting, “What is safe for a miner may not be safe for a baby.”
Baby powder is made of talc, a mineral taken from mines in Vermont, Italy and more recently Korea.
In 1974 after meeting with officials of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), documents revealed that J&J officials gave assurances their obligation was to further public health and if there were any questions regarding the safety of their baby powder product they would take it off the market.
“The product should have been removed from the market,” Egilman said.
Egilman told Leavitt’s attorney Joseph Satterley that Johnson & Johnson had violated its own company credo: “Everything we do must be of high quality. We are responsible and must be good citizens. Our final responsibility is to live up to our stockholders.”
“Did they live up to the credo?” Satterley asked.
“They did not,” Egilman said. “They sold a product that had asbestos. They continued to sell it despite what they were told.”
Egilman told the jury the latency period for asbestos exposure from the time of first contact to the development of disease at the earliest is 15 years, with an average of 30 to 35 years. He explained that asbestos exposure causes a mutation in DNA which causes a protein the body uses to stop out-of-control cell division to break down.
An estimated 239 million babies were powdered with Johnson & Johnson from the years 1930 to 1990, according to company documents.
Egilman said the fragrance put into J&J powder—a sweet smell—was installed to encourage breathing the product and develop trust and positive emotions. He added that people’s assumptions were that because the powder was for babies, it must be safe to use.
“It is a way of developing trust in the product,” Egilman said.
Egilman took issue with claims that Johnson & Johnson baby powder was safe and more pure than other brands and inter-company correspondence was exhibited questioning the wisdom of making such claims.
“Neither (pure or safe) is true,” Egilman said.
Satterley displayed a magazine advertisement that showed a young scantily-clad woman drying off with a towel after skinny-dipping in a lake, implying that the baby powder product was pure and natural. Another ad pictured a young woman and a young man together, which Egilman said implied women could get a boyfriend by using the product.
“They had a huge campaign that it was safe to use despite questions,” he said.