Defense team witness for J&J says talc for baby powder was tested for asbestos 16 hours a day

By John Sammon | Jan 31, 2019

ALAMEDA – Michael Brown the attorney for Johnson & Johnson questioned its corporate representative on Thursday intending to convince a jury the company had not hidden from better testing methods and no evidence had been found to suggest the baby powder she used caused Terry Leavitt’s mesothelioma.

Coverage of the trial in the Alameda Superior Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.    

“What did the testing tell you about the safety of the (baby powder) products?” Brown asked.

“It meant that when we looked at the test results there were no minerals defined as asbestos,” said John Hopkins, former research and development officer for J&J. “Tremolite was listed, but it was simply (non-asbestos) tremolote.”

A Johnson & Johnson employee from 1976 to 2000, Hopkins today runs his own consultancy firm. Called as a witness by the defense he is considered the company’s top spokesman and has appeared in previous asbestos trials.

Leavitt is suing Johnson & Johnson and its talc supplier Imerys Talc America claiming the baby powder she used daily from the 1960’s until 1990 caused her to develop mesothelioma, a rare and fatal cancer of the lungs.

Leavitt’s attorney Moshe Maimon questioned Hopkins for three days earlier in the week intending to establish that Johnson & Johnson deliberately ignored warnings there was asbestos in its baby powder and avoided using more comprehensive testing developed in the 1970’s called “concentration,” in which minerals were separated using heavy liquid before going under a microscope.

However Hopkins told Brown that after discussions with researchers like Fred Pooley of the University of Cardiff (UK) the concentration technique was not pursued by company officials because they thought it to be less effective than other methods.

“The door was never closed,” Hopkins said regarding the company’s consideration of the concentration method. “We were interested in it if it was a successful test method.”

Hopkins said the conclusion at the company was that concentration was not the best way forward for testing. A document said company officials believed it to be an inaccurate and unsuitable technique for asbestos detection in talc powder.

Instead Hopkins said the company placed its trust in the use of instruments like the transmission electron microscope that he called very powerful and superior to the concentration method.

“Were these recommendations made to Johnson & Johnson,” Brown asked.

“Yes,” Hopkins responded.

Hopkins explained that Johnson & Johnson used 95 percent of its talc, a mined mineral, for industrial purposes, while only five percent was for cosmetic baby powder. The two were processed differently.

“Industrial talc is used for making paper and for roofing shingles,” Hopkins said. “Also as filling for auto tires. It has many applications. Cosmetic talc is magnesium silicate and is colored white, not grey like industrial talc. It's required to be free from unpleasant materials.”

A third category is pharmaceutical talc used in the production of aspirin and as a treatment for lung conditions.

Hopkins said the mines where cosmetic talc is dug are used only for that purpose and have to supply a high quality ore. J&J depended on talc mines in Italy, Vermont and more recently Korea.   

Brown asked Hopkins about documentation discussing industry standards in the 1970’s for the testing of talc powder.

“What was the significance?” he asked.

“It (documents) showed the testing methods were the best of the day and the quality of the talc was second to none,” Hopkins responded.

Hopkins added Johnson & Johnson exceeded accepted testing methods approved by health agencies like the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) during the 1970's; the company used state-of-the-art tools like X-ray diffraction, which tells if a chemical has an amphibole (asbestos) signal. Also used were powerful transmission electron microscopes (TEM).

Talc ore arrived at labs in baseball-sized hunks and was ground into powder ready for processing; placed in a bath and washed, separating the talc from other materials before being dried into a cake prior to microscope analysis.

“When you look at it under a microscope it (processed talc) is a very different product,” Hopkins noted.

Hopkins said testing of the talc went on hourly, 16 hours a day, five days week.

Brown exhibited a document from Windsor Minerals, a subsidiary of J&J and its talc supplier in the 1970’s that stated there was a 99.9 percent certainty the baby powder was free from asbestos minerals.

 

  

   

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