Northern California Record

Friday, October 18, 2019

J&J corporate spokesman says company had zero tolerance for asbestos in baby powder trial

State Court

By John Sammon | Sep 16, 2019


Stuemke

TORRANCE – Attorneys for Carolyn Weirick on Friday attempted to portray officials at Johnson & Johnson as ignoring warnings about the danger of asbestos in baby powder, but a top spokesman for J&J insisted the company had zero tolerance for the deadly mineral.

“Dr. Blount’s document was read (by J&J), but it did not comport with company findings that the baby powder was asbestos free,” witness John Hopkins told Jay Stuemke, Weirick’s attorney.

Hopkins, who appeared for a second day of testimony, was a former director of research and development for Johnson & Johnson from 1976 to 2000 and today runs his own toxicology testing firm. He referred to Dr. Alice M. Blount, a researcher who published findings in 1991 that asbestos had been found in the baby powder.

Stuemke contended J&J officials had not acted on Blount’s findings, but Hopkins indicated company officials, while aware of Blount’s opinion, discounted them.

“You were in charge of talc safety (for J&J) and you didn’t know Blount had found asbestos until after 2000?” Stuemke asked.

“I was aware of the claims,” Hopkins said. “They did not match the testing (results) Johnson & Johnson did.”

The trial in the Los Angeles Superior Court is being streamed courtesy of Courtroom View Network.

Weirck sued Johnson & Johnson claiming that the baby powder she used for 40 years along with an adult product called Shower to Shower caused her to develop mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the linings of the lungs. A first trial ended in a hung jury in September of last year and a new trial to decide the case opened on Sept. 9.

The case is one of thousands pending across the country mostly filed by women alleging the powder caused them to develop ovarian cancer. Mesothelioma is a rare disease with 3,200 cases reported annually nationwide. However, more lawsuits over the disease have appeared in recent months.  

Blount had developed a method of testing talc powder for asbestos called concentration in which heavy liquid is spun in a tube to separate talc powder from heavier materials, which sink to the bottom before observation under a microscope.

Critics of the company said the method should have been used but Johnson & Johnson officials maintained it was ineffective particularly in detecting one of the six forms of asbestos called chrysotile.

“She (Blount) found asbestos in the baby powder, right?” Stuemke asked.

“Yes, that was her opinion,” Hopkins said.

“They (J&J officials) didn’t feel it necessary in the 1990s to tell the manager of talc safety (Hopkins) about asbestos in the baby powder?” Stuemke said.

“Objection,” Johnson & Johnson attorneys called.

“Sustained,” ruled Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Cary Nishimoto.

Stuemke exhibited a letter from the 1990s in which officials of Johnson & Johnson advised against talking about the issue of contaminants in baby powder at a conference unless people attending brought the subject up.

“I recommend we do nothing,” the letter read.

Someone at the company drew a circle around “do nothing” with a pen and scribbled “I agree.”

“They’re not going to deal with it unless people are talking about it,” Stuemke said.

“That’s speculative,” Hopkins said.

“You should be more concerned with actual safety than perceived safety?” Stuemke asked.

“Yes,” Hopkins agreed.

The letter added that company analysis of talc samples used in studies in the 1970s had shown no asbestos in the baby powder.

Another study from the 1990s concluded there may be trace (small) amounts of tremolite a mineral that can contain asbestos or not.

“Your opinion is that Johnson & Johnson talc never had any asbestos, correct?” Stuemke asked.

“That’s correct,” Hopkins said. “There are many cases that showed tremolite in a non-asbestos form in the (mined) ore.”

Stuemke exhibited in court a 1974 letter from a California woman sent to J&J expressing concern after a news article she read reported on the possibility of contaminated talc powder.

Johnson & Johnson officials in responding to her letter told the woman the company used the purest talcum powder available and washed the powder with a method called “flotation” to remove contaminants.

“J&J intended to convince the public the processing (flotation) would remove asbestos form the talc,” Stuemke said.

Hopkins disagreed.

“No, it was for impurities like quartz and sand,” he said. “It (letter) doesn’t mention asbestos. It states what it states.”

Stuemke asked if Johnson & Johnson was attempting to get people to agree to lower standards.

“Did they seek to compromise people?” Stuemke asked.

“No, they were trying to understand the truth,” Hopkins said.

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