A new study appearing in the current edition of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine may provide plaintiffs in talc litigation the most powerful evidence yet discovered linking asbestos-contaminated talcum powder to mesothelioma.
The study involved 33 subjects, with six cases described in detail, all of whom had used or been exposed to talc over the course of several years. Electron microscopic analysis (EMA) of patient lung tissue revealed the presence of anthophyllite and tremolite fibers. These are two varieties of asbestos that are known to cause mesothelioma. Shaped like hard, microscopic needles, these fibers literally drill through lung and other organ tissue, causing chronic inflammation that leads to DNA mutation and the formation of malignant tissue.
Biologist and public health expert Dr. Philip Landrigan called the evidence “compelling” and “credible,” noting that the study reinforces previous investigations into the connection between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. Professor Steve Gold of Rutgers Law School adds that “If a credible physician and researcher is willing to testify and has published that these individual cancers appear to be caused by asbestos exposure from talcum powder, that’s evidence that is usually not available to plaintiffs. That’s very powerful.”
Asbestos, a silicate mineral with similarities to talc, is often found near talc deposits. Johnson & Johnson has continued to deny that its talc has ever been contaminated with asbestos. However, an investigative report from Reuters in August of 2018 found that the company had been aware of the existence of asbestos in some of its products for several decades, but failed to disclose this information.
Juries in a number of recent talc cases have found Johnson & Johnson liable for the plaintiffs’ cancer. In 2016, two Missouri juries found in favor of plaintiffs who said they had used talc-based feminine hygiene products for many years. In the first talc case, heard in February of that year, the family of a deceased woman who had succumbed to ovarian cancer was awarded $72 million. In the second case three months later, J&J was ordered to pay $55 million.
In 2017, J&J was ordered to pay $4.7 billion to a group of women who had all contracted ovarian cancer, claiming the defendant's talc as the cause (the talc mining company had previously settled those cases for $5 million). This past March, a jury in California entered a $29 million judgment in favor of a woman claiming her mesothelioma had been due to the use of talc-based products.
Gold, a specialist in environmental law, notes that “Courts have been somewhat skeptical of case studies,” as applying details from a handful of subjects is more complicated when applied to a greater number of patients. Nonetheless, the study's co-author, Dr. Jacqueline Moline, hopes that their work will make the public more aware of the possible hazards of talc. She says, “There is no regulation for talc, and that if there is a safer alternative then I would advise them to do that.”