Researcher says cleavage fragments don’t cause cancer in J&J talc trial

By John Sammon | May 16, 2019

ALAMEDA – A cellular biologist and lung disease researcher on Thursday told a jury in a trial accusing Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive of causing a woman’s mesothelioma that cleavage fragments are not a cause of the deadly disease.

Attorneys for the plaintiff Patricia Schmitz sought to convince the jury otherwise.

The testimony of Dr. Brooke T. Mossman called as an expert witness by attorneys defending the talc powder companies opens a central argument in this and past asbestos trials---whether cleavage fragments are toxic or harmless.

“Based on my research and animal experiments, non-asbestos cleavage fragments do not cause mesothelioma,” Mossman said.

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

Schmitz, 61, is suing Johnson & Johnson for its baby powder and Colgate-Palmolive for a face powder product called Cashmere Bouquet alleging that asbestos in the powder caused her to develop mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lungs. The prognosis for Schmitz is grim. Doctors said she likely has only a few months to live.

Cleavage fragments are shards of crushed minerals. Defense attorneys maintain they can look the same shape and size as asbestos fibers, long and thin, and can be mistaken for them, but do not cause cancer.

Plaintiff attorneys have maintained such fragments can be toxic.

Pete Mularczyk, attorney for Johnson & Johnson, asked Mossman if platy talc, a mineral mined for use in cosmetic powder, can cause mesothelioma.

“My opinion is it does not,” Mossman said.

“What about fibrous talc. Do you have an opinion?” Mularczyk asked.

“My opinion is that it does not cause mesothelioma,” Mossman said.

Asbestos fibers can be 3 to 1 or 5 to 1 length-to-width in ratio. Mossman agreed cleavage fragments can overlap those sizes.

Mossman said her expertise is in looking at cellular changes of the body.

“The cell is where the cancer begins,” she said.

Mossman, who bills $550 per hour, was retained by Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive to testify. She said she became involved testifying in asbestos cases beginning in 2014 when she was approached by attorneys for Colgate-Palmolive.

She agreed that asbestos causes mesothelioma.

Mossman said the disease is a multi-stage process.

“It’s an injury to the cell that divides and survives,” she said. “It can take 40 years from initial exposure (to illness). The signature is uncontrolled cell division.”

“Have you ever seen peer reviewed (scientific) literature saying that talc can play a role in cell division?” Mularczyk asked.

“No I have never seen that,” Mossman said.

Of the six types of asbestos Mossman said chrysotile is the most common while crocidolite is the most potent. She added that another type of asbestos, tremolite, lacks sufficient data to fully explain its nature.

“We can’t attribute a potency to it (tremolite),” Mossman said.

Under cross examination, Denyse Clancy, Schmitz's attorney, asked Mossman if 50 percent of her work was in mesothelioma cases.

"That's a ballpark figure, sure," Mossman said.

"Of your salary 100 percent comes from litigation?" Clancy asked.

"Correct," Mossman said.

Clancy said Mossman had worked on behalf of tobacco companies in the 1990s.

"No," Mossman disagreed. 

She agreed she had received some small donations $2,500 in one case from a Tobacco Research Council.

"They were on a corporate sponsors list," Mossman said.

"You had a significant relationship with the talc industry?" Clancy asked.

"No," Mossman disagreed.

"The same lawyers that put you in touch with the tobacco industry put you in touch with the talc industry?"

Mossman agreed.

Clancy referred to a document that listed eight talc workers (miners) in New York State who developed mesothelioma. She asked Mossman if she was aware that officials at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) did not want the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to exclude cleavage fragments from a list of hazardous substances.

"No I did not (know)," Mossman said.

"Have you tested any of the talcs that went into Johnson & Johnson baby powder?" Clancy asked.

"I have not," Mossman said.

"They (J&J) never said, here's our talc, test it?"

"Correct," Mossman said.

The trial which began on April 22 is expected to conclude the last week of May. Alameda Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch is presiding.

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