On March 18, a Columbia University science history professor provided testimony to jurors in New Jersey on the history of asbestos and why it was eventually labeled as a deadly toxic substance. The talc powder trial is being held in the Middlesex County NJ Superior Court to determine if Johnson and Johnson's talc-based baby powder caused the plaintiff's mesothelioma.
NJ Talc powder Trial Against Johnson & Johnson
Ricardo Rimondi, the plaintiff in the NJ case, claims that Johnson & Johnson's baby powder caused him to develop mesothelioma cancer within the lining of his lungs. The 58-year-old father from Peru was diagnosed with the incurable form of cancer in 2016.
The law firm representing the plaintiff was successful in winning a $4.69 billion for 22 women against Johnson & Johnson in July 2018. The women claimed that the talcum-based powder products caused their ovarian cancer.
Connecting Talc, Asbestos, and Cancer
This was a landmark case because it provided a new legal front for the other 12,000 women who’ve already filed lawsuits over ovarian cancer caused by the talc-based J&J baby powder. The plaintiffs claimed that the Johnson & Johnson baby powder caused their cancer because the talc was contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen that’s potentially hazardous at minimal exposure.
Talc and asbestos are both found underground. Veins of asbestos often run into deposits of the talc mineral, so the risk of cross-contamination does exist. Talc is used often in common items like children's toys, food processing, a wide variety of personal health and beauty products. Unless labeled otherwise, talc, or talcum powder, is also the primary components used in baby powder.
The use of talc has been discouraged by the FDA and the medical industry for several decades. However, the FDA hasn’t tested talc products for asbestos since 2010. However, that test was only conducted on two dozen commercial products from just four different suppliers. A number of the plaintiffs targeting Johnson & Johnson claim that they've already detected asbestos the talcum powder products.
A Timeline on the History of Asbestos
The plaintiff's expert witness, Dr. David Rosner, explained to the jury that speculation about the risks associated with asbestos began in England, late in the 19th century, as textile mills underwent inspections to determine why workers struggled with breathing and were dying early than expected.
Employees who began working at the mills at age 18 were dying as early as age 33.
According to Dr. Rosner, the initial reports describe asbestos particles as insidious and evil. Initially, asbestos had been used in the fabrication of different insulators, including insulation used in home appliances and hot water boilers.
However, Rosner provided a clear timeline on the history of asbestos, detailing how and why it eventually became labeled as a hazardous product:
- 1906 - A pathologist in Britain began examining the scarring of workers' lungs
- 1907 - The first detailed report on the impact of breathing in mineral dust is produced by an insurance executive and statistician at Prudential Insurance Co. This was significant because insurers began denying ensuring asbestos workers and classifying them as a bad risk.
- 1927 - A pathologist produces the first report on asbestosis, described as a disease associated with shortness of breath and lung scarring. Asbestos exposure was then redefined from merely a general condition to being considered a dust-lung disease.
- 1928 - "Pulmonary Asbestosis" is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the article begins circulating throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
- 1930 - Asbestos was widely known to be dangerous, but the safe level of exposure or threshold limit was still unknown. According to Dr. Rosner, in regards to developing cancer, there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
- 1940 - The direct connection between asbestos and cancer was being recognized by more people.
- 1960 - Studies began actually linking the asbestosis disease with talc powder containing asbestos.
- 1970 - In an attempt to regulate safety for workers in the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was formed.
Asbestos-Talc Trials in the U.S.
Other asbestos cases in New Jersey have recently been awarded verdicts of $37 million and $117 million, higher than the U.S. average. Currently, there are thousands of lawsuits pending in U.S. courts, claiming that asbestos exposure from using Johnson & Johnson talc products caused serious injuries, health issues or chronic diseases.
It's worth noting how critical expert testimony is in these talc-asbestos cases. In neighboring Philadelphia, one judge recently refused to allow a plaintiff's expert witness to testify and subsequently dismissed the case altogether. To be effective, these witnesses must be able to provide credible information and withstand scrutinizing cross-examinations.