ALAMEDA – An industrial hygienist called as a witness for attorneys defending Johnson & Johnson and Colegate-Palmolive on Wednesday told a jury Patricia Schmitz’s exposure to asbestos was no more than background level.
Plaintiff attorneys, however, said her analysis left much out.
“Safe is an acceptable risk?” asked Gary Sharp, attorney for Johnson & Johnson.
“That’s correct,” responded Jennifer Sahmel, an industrial hygiene and exposure scientist with Insight Risk, a materials consulting firm in Boulder, Colo.
The trial in the Alameda Superior Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.
Background is considered a level of exposure to asbestos that all people have for example breathing particles in the air and is not considered life-threatening.
Schmitz is suing Johnson & Johnson for its baby powder and Colgate-Palmolive for a face powder product called Cashmere Bouquet that she claimed caused her to develop mesothelioma, a deadly disease of the linings of the lungs.
The 61-year-old woman, a mother of two with grandchildren, was a former teacher before being diagnosed with the disease last year. Doctors have said the disease is terminal, probably within a few months.
The case is one of hundreds pending across the country against Johnson & Johnson, most filed by women alleging the baby powder caused them to develop ovarian cancer.
Sahmel explained how she determined Schmitz’s potential level of exposure.
Schmitz reportedly used Johnson & Johnson baby powder and then later the Cashmere Bouquet over a 40-year period.
Sahmel calculated that Schmitz used the Cashmere Bouquet product daily with exposure anywhere from 43 seconds to 2.48 minutes in duration.
“So, you’re looking at the worst of the worst (possible exposure levels)?” Sharp asked.
“That was my attempt,” Sahmel said.
Sahmel added that Schmitz’s use of the powder was estimated from the years 1970 to 1996, including daily use and the cleaning of a bathroom where the powder had been applied (causing airborne dust).
The exposure finding for Schmitz was estimated at .008 fibers per cubic centimeter.
“Is this well within the background of exposure?” Sharp asked.
“Yes it is,” Sahmel responded.
She indicated the finding also correlated with background limits set by government health agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Sahmel noted that agencies customarily set higher risk determinations in calculating to “over-protect” the public.
She explained that testing by industrial hygienists includes taking air samples by using a sampling air pump to measure a given volume of air, measuring the number of fibers in a cubic centimeter of air.
Exposure is determined by figuring the duration, frequency and intensity of a product’s use.
Joseph Satterley, Schmitz’s attorney, challenged Sahmel’s findings. He said that calculations had been primarily about Cashmere Bouquet use and did not take into account the full amount of the exposure Schmitz had been subjected to from Johnson & Johnson powder.
“You did not include Johnson & Johnson (baby powder),” he said.
“That’s correct,” Sahmel said.
Satterley noted that J&J powder had been applied by Schmitz to her father who was bedridden in their home during a time he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Satterley said the figuring didn’t include this exposure.
“That’s correct,” Sahmel said.
“It didn’t include Johnson & Johnson powder when her (Schmitz’s) mom applied it to her as a baby,” Satterley said.
“That’s correct,” Sahmel said. “I was not asked to do that.”
“So when it was said it (exposure) was a worst-case scenario, it’s not true,” Satterley said.
Sahmel said it was true with respect to use of Cashmere Bouquet.
“The conclusion is not true,” Satterley said.
“It is with respect with what I was asked to do,” Sahmel insisted.
Satterley said Sahmel had testified in 20 mesothelioma cases.
“Yes,” she said.
“What you’re saying is that a little bit of asbestos is acceptable?” Satterley asked.
“I can’t answer yes or no I’m sorry,” Sahmel said.
“You haven’t worked for any plaintiffs?”
“That’s right,” Sahmel said.
“You’re saying that all those years of using Cashmere Bouquet didn’t increase her (Schmitz’s) risk of mesothelioma?” Satterley asked.
“That’s right,” Sahmel answered.
"You haven't done an air background sampling of Alameda, Oakland or Berkeley?" Satterley asked.
"I have not," Sahmel said.
"Colgate-Palmolive during the 1960s, '70s, '80s never measured exposure (to talc)."
"Not to my knowledge," Sahmel said.