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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 21, May 20, 2023

Proposal of $9 billion to settle legal claims regarding severe health hazards of talcum powder raises wider issues | Bharat Dogra

Saturday 20 May 2023, by Bharat Dogra


The giant pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson has recently proposed paying $ 8.9 billion dollars to settle thousands of legal cases relating to severe health problems including ovarian cancer being caused by its talcum powder products in North America.

Health problems caused by talcum powder to small children have been a matter of concern for doctors for a much longer period in several countries, including India.

One part, and only one part, of the concerns relate to the detection of asbestos, a known carcinogen, in J&J talcum products.

As concern over serious health hazards grew, J and J agreed to withdraw talcum-based powder including baby powder in North America some years back but this continued to be sold in other countries like India. Its global phase-out was postponed to when its manufacture would end in 2023, with talcum-based products being replaced by alternatives.

In this context a question has been raised as to why a withdrawal of the product in North America (USA and Canada) was delayed for a long time despite serious hazards being known for a long time and despite there being concern within J&J regarding the presence of asbestos in its talcum powder.

A Reuters Investigation in 2018 was titled ‘Johnson and Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its baby powder’. This stated, “Internal documents examined by Reuters show that the company’s powder was sometimes tainted with carcinogenic asbestos and that J&J kept that information from regulators and the public…J&J didn’t tell the FDA that at least three different labs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in the talc—in one case at levels considered as ‘rather high’…The documents also depict successful efforts to influence US regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientific research on the health effects of talc.”

Another report in the New York Times dated December 14 2018 titled ‘What is talc, where it is used and why is asbestos a concern’, written by Roni Caryn Robin is even more revealing. This report says, “The carcinogen has been a concern within the company for decades. In hundreds of pages of memos reviewed by the New York Times , executives worried about a potential government ban on talc, the safety of the product and public backlash over Johnson’s Baby Powder, , a product build on a reputation for trustworthiness and health.”

Further this report clarified that even without asbestos talcum powder is a hazardous product. To quite, “Pediatricians have been warning parents for decades not to use powder on babies because of the risk a child will inhale or aspirate talc, which can cause choking and coughing and lead to respiratory illness or chronic disease and lung damage. This has nothing to do with asbestos. Cases of babies dying from choking were reported as early as the 1960s and since 1981 the American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a strong position against the use of talc on babies and children saying it is hazardous and has no medicinal value.”

If it is agreed that health hazards of using baby talcum powder were well-known by the 1960s, then this would mean that even in the USA J&J waited for over 50 years before withdrawing a product that was known to be harmful to children.

More in the context of India, Bindu Shajan Perappadan reported in The Hindu (Augut 28-29, 2022), in a report titled ‘J&J continues to sell talc-based powder in India, despite discontinuing in US and Canada’. This report stated, “Child rights groups, parents, and doctors have been questioning the continued availability of the product in India. Indian drug regulators have been silent on this issue, allowing wide availability and sale of this product in the country…For decades now doctors have warned parents not to use talcum powder on babies, even if it does not contain asbestos, cautioning that inhaling the talc can lead to respiratory illnesses.” This report also quoted a senior doctor Dr. Syed Mustafa Hasan as stating that talcum powders are harmful to both mother and baby.

Thus the fact that emerges from such reports is that despite the hazards of talcum powder, with or without asbestos, being well-established, particularly for small children, their sale was continued by the manufacturer for decades and allowed by the drug authorities for decades.

Another issue that arises is whether damage claims if and when these are made will be settled on the same pattern in other countries as well (compared to the recent proposal reported from the USA).

Talc is regarded widely as the softest mineral and used widely in a range of cosmetics, crayons, toys, and food processing, including polished rice and chewing gum, according to the New York Times report quoted above.

(Author: Bharat Dogra, is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, Protecting Earth for Children, and A Day in 2071)

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