The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal by Johnson & Johnson to overturn a $2 billion verdict in favor of women who claimed the company’s talc product caused ovarian cancer.
The ruling leaves intact a Missouri court decision to award the women the sizeable sum after a jury found that the company’s talc products contain asbestos and that asbestos-laced talc can cause cancer of the ovaries. The initial verdict was for $4.7 billion, but a Missouri appeals court reduced the award to $2 billion and dropped two women from the lawsuit.
Johnson & Johnson disputes that its products cause cancer and insists the talc it uses is of high purity and is “only mined from select deposits in certified locations before being milled into relatively large, non-respirable-sized particles” and “is accepted as safe for use in cosmetic and personal care products throughout the world.” The company stopped selling its talc-based baby powder in the United States and Canada in May 2020, though it continues to sell the product in other markets.
The controversy stems from the fact that, in its natural state, talc is often found close to asbestos, a hazardous substance known to cause lung cancer when inhaled. When talc is mined in close proximity to asbestos, there is the potential for cross-contamination and traces of asbestos in talcum powder.
“There is the potential for contamination of talc with asbestos and therefore, it is important to select talc mining sites carefully and take steps to test the ore sufficiently,” the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in a note on talc safety.
Johnson & Johnson insists that its talc “comes from ore sources confirmed to meet our stringent specifications that exceed industry standards.”
In March 2020, the FDA released the results of a year-long sampling study that examined random talc-containing cosmetics, looking for asbestos. The FDA found 43 samples that tested negative, while nine were positive.
When the FDA identified a positive sample, the agency immediately notified the public and worked with affected companies on product recalls. One such recall, dating back to October 2019, pertained to a lot of Johnson & Johnson baby powder, which the FDA found tested positive for asbestos.
In its recall notice, Johnson & Johnson acknowledged the FDA had found “sub-trace levels of chrysotile asbestos contamination (no greater than 0.00002 [percent]) in samples from a single bottle purchased from an online retailer.” The company added that it has a “rigorous testing standard in place to ensure its cosmetic talc is safe” and that “thousands of tests over the past 40 years repeatedly confirm that our consumer talc products do not contain asbestos.”
But the company faces thousands of lawsuits from women who claim asbestos in the powder caused their cancer.
J&J told Reuters in a statement that there are unresolved legal issues that will continue to be litigated and previously said it faces more than 19,000 similar claims.
“The matters that were before the court are related to legal procedure, and not safety. Decades of independent scientific evaluations confirm Johnson’s Baby Powder is safe, does not contain asbestos, and does not cause cancer,” the company said.
A 2018 Reuters investigation found that Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that some of its talc products contained trace amounts of asbestos and kept that information from regulators and the public.
Reuters contributed to this report.