Northern California Record

Friday, February 28, 2020

Mineralogist called by defendants in Schmitz trial says no asbestos in J&J baby powder


By John Sammon | May 29, 2019


OAKLAND – A mineralogist called by attorneys defending Johnson & Johnson said on Tuesday there was no asbestos found in the baby powder he tested from talc mines in Italy and Vermont.

“Do you have an opinion whether asbestos was found in Cashmere Bouquet containers?” asked Peter Mularczyk, attorney for Johnson & Johnson.

“Asbestos has not been found,” responded Matthew Sanchez, mineralogist with the R.J. Lee Group, a Pennsylvania materials testing lab.

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

Plaintiff Patricia Schmitz sued Johnson & Johnson for its baby powder and Colgate-Palmolive for its Cashmere Bouquet, an adult face powder product, claiming her 40-year use of the products allegedly tainted with asbestos caused her to develop mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lungs.

Sanchez has been called by defendant lawyers in part to counter the testimony of William Longo, a Georgia microscope researcher who testified for plaintiff lawyers saying he had found asbestos in samplings of the powder.

“What have you been asked to do?” Mularczyk asked.

“To look at source mines used for talc in both Cashmere Bouquet and Johnson & Johnson,” Sanchez said.

“Do you have an opinion of the mines Colgate-Palmolive used?” Mularczyk asked.

“You would not expect to find asbestos in those mines,” Sanchez said.

Talc powder for use in the products was acquired in Italy, North Carolina, Vermont and since 2003 in China.

Sanchez said asbestos had not been found from samples taken from Cashmere Bouquet containers.

He agreed that testing was done with a variety of tools, including the use of X-ray diffraction to determine crystal structure, a polarized light microscope (PLM), transmission electron microscope (TEM), and scanning electron microscope (SEM).

“Can a non-asbestos rock be crushed and form asbestos?” Mularczyk asked.

“No,” Sanchez answered.

An issue in the trial and in past asbestos trials has been that of cleavage fragments, crushed rock particles generated in the milling process of talc, a mined mineral. Defendant attorneys claim cleavage particles are not asbestos and not toxic. Plaintiff attorneys contend they can be asbestos.

Sanchez disputed Longo’s findings, saying because cleavage fragments can be long and thin in size and shape like asbestos fibers, Longo had misidentified cleavage fragments as asbestos fibers.

“If it was greater than 3-to-1 (length to width) in ratio, they (Longo) called it asbestos,” Sanchez said. “If it was less than 3-to-1 they called it cleavage fragments.”

“Can you misidentify?” Mularczyk asked.

“Yes, you will get false positives,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said Longo had also misidentified cummingtonite, a non-asbestos amphibole mineral, as anthopolite, a form of asbestos. In addition, he agreed Longo had misidentified fibers as bundles common in asbestos when they were actually not bundles.

Alex Calfo, attorney for Johnson & Johnson, asked Sanchez if asbestos had been found in mines in Italy or Vermont.

“No,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said he had found non-asbestos serpentine minerals and chloride, which are not dangerous.

Calfo asked if Longo and another plaintiff witness, Lee Poye of the J3 Resources testing lab in Houston, were geologists or mineralogists.

Sanchez agreed they were not.

“Is it your understanding that Longo and Poye have not been to the talc mines?”

“That’s correct,” Sanchez said.

During his testimony, Longo touted use of the concentration method of testing talc powder. The testing, developed in the 1970s, uses talc powder spun in a tube filled with heavy liquid to separate talc from heavier materials, which sink to the bottom and can be analyzed by a microscope. 

Officials of Johnson & Johnson declined to use the method saying it was ineffective, while critics of the company alleged that J&J officials were disturbed the technique was too sensitive and might find asbestos in the powder.

Sanchez said the heavy liquid separation method had flaws, for example an inability to spot chrysotile, a form of asbestos.

He agreed with Calfo's statement that not a single government agency had adopted concentration as a testing technique, nor had a number of scientists.

"Yes," Sanchez said. "You need to identify what you separate correctly. If you try to separate chrysotile (using concentration) you ignore amphiboles. If you try to separate amphiboles you ignore chrysotile."  

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