J&J star witness says company stuck with talc in baby powder because they believed it safe

By John Sammon | Feb 4, 2019

ALAMEDA — A top corporate spokesman for Johnson & Johnson contended that the company did not abandon talc in baby powder in favor of corn starch because company officials believed talc was safe.

“Tests done by the Colorado School of Mines, the McCrone Group and the University of Cardiff all found no asbestos?” Michael Brown the attorney for Johnson and Johnson asked.

“That’s correct,” said John Hopkins, former research and development director for J&J from 1976 to 2000.

Instead, corn starch was offered to the public in J&J baby powder as a less widely used consumer alternative.

Hopkins a defense witness concluded a week of testimony on Monday saying that testing done in the 1970s and later revealed no asbestos of the kind Terry Leavitt maintained gave her the deadly disease mesothelioma.

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

The trial is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.

During the monthlong trial, Leavitt’s attorneys presented documents from researchers they said showed the baby powder contained asbestos. Attorneys for the defense countered with their own documents, some done in outside labs, others tests conducted in-house at Johnson & Johnson, attempting to make a case that no asbestos had been found.

Many of the documents presented during the trial date from the 1970s a time when testing methods improved greatly amid greater suspicion voiced about the safety of baby powder, which led suppliers to seek purer talc supplies. 

During the 1980s, Johnson & Johnson offered to the public baby powder containing corn starch instead of talc, which is a mined mineral. Plaintiff attorneys have steadily contended the company should have abandoned talc powder in favor of the safer corn starch.

However, Hopkins, who was responsible for insuring the safety of the talc product at J&J by reviewing lab test results, said corn starch was simply offered as an extra alternative for consumers. The company continued to sell its talc baby powder.

“Why did you sell corn starch?” Brown asked.

“Object!” the plaintiff attorney called.

Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman sustained the objection.

Brown rephrased the question.

Hopkins said company officials offered corn starch as a second J&J baby powder alternative seeing it as a business opportunity after performing marketing research and querying consumers, not because of safety concerns with talc.

Brown produced a document dated 1972 to officials at Johnson & Johnson that said testing had found no chrysotile, an asbestos-related mineral, after X-ray diffraction (which looks at the crystal structure) had been performed.

Another exhibited document from the Cardiff University lab in the U.K. also reported no asbestos.

Brown displayed newspaper clippings from the 1970s one in which asbestos researcher Seymour Lewin, a professor of chemistry at New York University, reported that of 11 samples or talc ore, nine contained no asbestos and two were inconclusive.

During cross examination, Leavitt’s attorney Moshe Maimon asked Hopkins if he understood the nature of perjury.

“You took an oath to tell the truth, understand?” Maimon said.

“Yes,” Hopkins responded.

Maimon took issue with what he said was a lack of “contemporaneous” existing documents from meetings among J&J officials in the 1990s that failed to corroborate claims Hopkins was making to the jury.

Hopkins indicated such meetings (not documented in detail) were conversational in nature and for educational information sharing.

Maimon questioned Hopkins about his statements made under oath including one in 2007 when he said there was only one mine in Vermont where J&J had gotten its talc. Hopkins responded that he meant mines located in what was called the West Windsor District (Vermont).

In the late 1980s, a petition was presented from a group called the Cancer Prevention Coalition asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require a warning label on cosmetic talc powder products. The FDA written response to the petition request said the federal health organization was concerned about the possibility of asbestos in talc, but because of mounting concerns talc suppliers had begun selling a higher purity of talc to the cosmetic industry.

The FDA note said this resulted in significant improvement in the powder.

“Even when asbestos was present, the levels were so low that no health hazard existed,” the FDA reponse said. “The risk for a worst-case scenario for exposure to asbestos from cosmetic talc would be less than the risk for background levels of exposure to asbestos (non-occupational) over a lifetime."

Hopkins was asked how many fibers would have to be found under a microscope to be above a trace amount of asbestos.

“There is no definitive limit for trace,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins was asked why the company had not adopted a new method of testing developed during the 1970s called “concentration” in which materials were separated using heavy liquid before being studied under a microscope.

“The transmission electron microscope (TEM) could detect much lower levels (than concentration),” Hopkins said. “The TEM was seen as more accurate.”

Hopkins added the concentration technique was not particularly good at spotting chrysotile asbestos.

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