Northern California Record

Monday, February 24, 2020

Star witness for J&J refutes asbestos claims


By John Sammon | Oct 4, 2019


TORRANCE – In a trial to decide if Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder allegedly laced with asbestos caused a woman’s mesothelioma, an expert witness for the company told a jury last week that there was no asbestos in the talc powder.

Dr. Matthew Sanchez of the R.J. Lee Group lab in Pennsylvania was asked why he was appearing to testify for the consumer products manufacturer.

“Two reasons,” Sanchez said. “The talc I tested had no asbestos in the samples. Secondly, it’s professional ethics to defend my findings."

Sanchez, a geologist and mineralogist, has appeared as an important expert witness for the company in numerous talc powder trials, and to counter the testimony of Dr. William Longo of the MAS lab in Georgia. Longo, a plaintiff expert witness, earlier testified he had found asbestos in the baby powder.

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

The plaintiff alleges in the lawsuit that the company’s baby powder and an adult product called Shower to Shower caused her to develop mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the linings of the lungs. A former school counselor, she reportedly used the baby powder and Shower to Shower for 40 years. 

Doctors give her little chance for survival.

The case is among the latest of hundreds of lawsuits filed by women across the country against the baby powder manufacturer, most alleging that the company’s talc powder products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. Mesothelioma is a much rarer disease with 3,200 cases in the U.S. reported annually.

The case went to trial last year but a jury in a Superior Court in Pasadena deadlocked. The trial resumed in Torrance on Sept. 9.

John Ewald, attorney for Johnson & Johnson, asked Sanchez if Longo and Dr. Steven Compton, another expert witness called by the plaintiff’s attorneys, were geologists or mineralogists.

“No,” Sanchez responded.

Talc, a mined mineral for use in the baby powder, came from Italy, Vermont and more recently China.

“Have you visited these talc mines in person?”

“Yes, two of three,” Sanchez said.

Ewald exhibited a photo of Sanchez standing with his hosts outside a talc mine in China.

“Have Longo or Compton been to the mines?”

“No they have not,” Sanchez responded.

“Why is it important for the jury to hear from a geologist?” Ewald asked.

“To find out what’s in the talc powder,” Sanchez said. “[Talc powder] starts as a rock.”

Ewald asked if Johnson & Johnson did regular audits of the R.J. Lee Group to verify competent testing methods.

Sanchez said that they did “so they can be confident our work is accurate and good.”

Sanchez said his firm used three kinds of high-powered microscopes to analyze the talc powder – the polarized light microscope or PLM, transmission electron microscope or TEM, and X-ray diffraction, used to determine the crystal structure of a mineral.

Sanchez, who admitted to billing Johnson & Johnson $550 per hour to testify, said cleavage fragments or crushed particles of minerals can resemble abestos fibers in shape but they are not actually asbestos. 

He said the use of concentration testing or using heavy liquid spun in a tube to separate talc from heavier particles developed in the 1970s and could not spot chrysotile, an asbestos-related mineral. Critics of the company said concentration should have been used to analyze talc powder, but J&J officials declined to use it, saying it was ineffective.

Sanchez agreed with an assertion from Ewald that Longo’s testing methods misidentified asbestos bundles that were not asbestos bundles, and used a form of counting fibers to define asbestos that was flawed. Asbestos fibers are usually long and thin with a 3 to 1 (length to width) aspect ratio or greater.

“Using the counting criteria, [Longo] was saying it's asbestos when it’s not there,” Sanchez said. “Using a five-to-one aspect ratio [fiber-counting method] cannot identify asbestos.”

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