Researcher says Leavitt used baby powder thousands of times

By John Sammon | Feb 10, 2019

ALAMEDA – A noted microscopic researcher told a jury on Thursday that plaintiff Terry Leavitt’s mother had used Johnson & Johnson baby powder on her as a child 5,110 times over two years, and that Leavitt continued using the product thousands of additional times as a young girl and adult.

“Do you have an opinion whether Mrs. Leavitt was exposed to asbestos?” Moshe Maimon, Leavitt’s attorney, asked.

“Yes,” replied Dr. William Longo, owner of the MAS lab in Georgia, a microscope firm specializing in analysis of asbestos containing materials.

“What is it?”

“She was,” Longo answered.

Leavitt is suing Johnson & Johnson and its talc powder mining supplier Imerys Talc America, alleging the baby powder she used for 30 years until 1990 caused her to develop mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer of the lungs.

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

Longo, a witness called by Maimon, operates a 20,000 square-foot materials testing facility with 42 employees and analyzed samplings of Johnson & Johnson baby powder. He said Leavitt was living in the humid climate of the Philippines as a toddler and her mother used J&J talc numerous times every day with baby powder that had been mined in South Korea.

Talc is a mineral dug from mines including those in Italy and Vermont.

Longo said testing of the Korean talc revealed asbestos contamination, in this case fibrous tremolite, one of six recognized asbestos-related minerals.

During one sampling, six of seven samples tested positive for asbestos.

“Do you have an opinion if Imerys' talc contains asbestos?” Maimon asked.

“Yes,” Longo said.

“What is the opinion?”

“It does,” Longo said.

Another test of talc taken from a supplier in Vermont revealed 25 of 41 samples testing positive for asbestos.

“The fact that some were found with none, does that mean there’s no asbestos?” Maimon asked.

“No,” Longo said.

Prior testing from some of the labs J&J employed had come back labeled “non-quantifiable.” Longo said that didn’t mean no asbestos was there if the testing methods were not sensitive enough to detect smaller amounts of asbestos.

“You can’t say it’s non-quantifiable and say there’s nothing there,” Longo said.  

He agreed the exposure to Leavitt was significant.

During the monthlong trial, lawyers for both sides have argued about the possible presence of small amounts of asbestos called “trace amounts,” particles that can skip detection because the instruments or methods used at the time were not sensitive enough to spot them.

Critics of Johnson & Johnson said company officials should have switched to using safer corn starch in the 1980s rather than continue using talc. A corn starch baby powder was offered by the company as a consumer alternative, but talc continued to be the most popular brand.

In the 1970s, a new method for testing talc called “concentration” was developed. J&J officials declined to use it, saying they considered it less accurate than microscopes. The technology uses heavy liquid to spin talc in a centrifuge tube separating the talc—which floats to the top—from heavier material.

Longo said combining the standard X-ray diffraction (XRD) method with concentration would have been more effective than XRD alone, which can fail to detect trace amounts of asbestos.  

During cross examination, Matt Ashby, the attorney for Johnson & Johnson, asked Longo if he was a certified industrial hygienist.

Longo answered he was not.

“You’re not a geologist?”

“No,” Longo answered.

“A mineralogist?”

“Yes and no,” Longo said.

“You have a Ph.D. (mineralogy)?” Ashby asked.

“That I do not have,” Longo said.

Ashby noted that Longo’s time testifying in court talc litigation had jumped in recent years from 40 percent to 70 percent as an expert for plaintiffs.

“You testify about once a week for the past five years?”

Longo agreed.

Defense attorneys have steadily maintained that Johnson & Johnson, in both in-house testing and that assigned to outside labs, used the best testing methods available at the time and met or exceeded then-industry standards.

Ashby exhibited a document in which Longo had written “A problem in the 1970s was there were few if any commercial labs that had the appropriate techniques to perform accurate trace contaminate analysis.”

“I still stand by that statement,” Longo said.

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