A can of Johnson’s Baby Powder, the trade name for talcum powder by J&J Mike Segar (Portal)
The days of the traditional talcum powder that is common in every child’s bag are numbered. Or at least that of multinational Johnson & Johnson (J&J), which made the “commercial decision” to withdraw baby products containing the ingredient in 2023, after countless legal battles and three years after sales ceased in the US and Canada. In a statement released Thursday, the multinational announced its intention to use cornstarch instead of talc in its line of child care products. The healthcare conglomerate, which claims the products’ safety, has spent nearly a decade filing lawsuits over alleged cancer risks associated with the company’s flagship product, which has been sold since 1894.
After receiving nearly 38,000 complaints from consumers about alleged health risks, such as B. contamination with asbestos in its composition, the company says it is making the transition to models of “sustainable innovation” such as the use of corn starch. However, J&J is “firmly convinced” that conventional talcum powder is harmless. “Cornstar-based baby powders are already being sold in countries around the world. They are an iconic global brand of [la división de salud de] J&J (…) Our position on the safety of our cosmetic powders remains unchanged. We strongly support decades of independent scientific analysis by medical experts around the world that confirm talc is safe, contains no asbestos and does not cause cancer.”
Asbestos exposure has been linked to lung cancer, but there is debate as to whether it can also cause ovarian cancer. The multinational has lost several lawsuits over the latter. In 2017, a Los Angeles court ordered the drug company to pay $417 million (€354 million at the time) for causing a 63-year-old woman to be diagnosed with end-stage ovarian cancer. Likewise, the company was fined for failing to adequately warn of the risk associated with using its products with talc.
The largest study to date, involving more than 252,000 women, found no link between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer, although the authors acknowledge that more research is needed because the study may not be “sufficient” to detect “small increases in risk.”
Talc is made from a mineral composed primarily of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. In its natural form, some talc contains asbestos, which the American Cancer Society says can cause lung cancer if inhaled. The personal care industry has long followed guidelines that dictate that beauty products must not contain “detectable amounts of asbestos”.
The withdrawal from the US and Canadian markets was due to “misinformation” about the safety of the product, according to the company. The company faces approximately 38,000 lawsuits from consumers and family members of cancer victims. Leveraging decades of lab testing and the green light of regulators, J&J insists on the safety of its product while maneuvering to protect its interests in the face of a legal crackdown. Like many other companies, including other big pharmas, in October J&J spun off a division of its parent company called LTL Management, to which it entrusted the talc-based product line. He then filed for bankruptcy with LTL Management, which automatically dropped pending lawsuits. Before filing for bankruptcy, the company faced the payment of $3,500 million in fines and out-of-court settlements, including one in which 22 women were awarded more than $2,000 million by the courts.
The litigation between the complainants and the subsidiary’s representatives has not been resolved as the former insist on holding J&J accountable. Ben Whiting, an attorney for the law firm Keller Postman, which represents the plaintiffs, has said that if a federal appeals court gives the green light to the lawsuits, consumers who have filed a complaint could use the product recall as evidence against the defendants.
A shareholder proposal to end global sales of talc was rejected in April. In 2018, a Portal investigation found that J&J had known for decades that asbestos was in its talc product line. Internal company records, trial testimonies, and other documentary evidence showed that these products sometimes tested positive for trace amounts of asbestos from at least 1971 through the early 2000s.
Sold since 1894, Johnson’s Baby Powder, the registered trademark, became a symbol of the company’s family image. In 1999, the company considered it the #1 asset of all of its baby lines, though its sales in 2020, when it was withdrawn in the US, accounted for just 0.5% of its total sales in the country.