Big win for public health: Johnson & Johnson to stop selling iconic baby powder in the U.S. & Canada due to asbestos contamination, but more needed
MAY 21, 2020
Janet Nudelman, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners
In a stunning victory for public health, Johnson & Johnson announced it will stop selling its iconic baby powder in the U.S and Canada. J&J’s surprise move came in response to both a decline in sales and growing consumer outrage over the asbestos-ovarian cancer link and the documented presence of asbestos in some J&J baby powder. Talc can become contaminated by asbestos when it is mined because naturally occurring veins of asbestos can run through Talc deposits. 82 years of inadequate federal regulation of cosmetic safety and lax testing by manufacturers have allowed beauty and personal care products contaminated with asbestos to make it onto store shelves without FDA oversight or review.
Asbestos-contaminated baby powder is just the tip of the iceberg of the problem: asbestos is showing up in everything from talc-based J&J baby powder, blush and bronzer to eye make-up in both adult and kids cosmetics. Outrageously, even though there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos, the FDA has no legal authority to force companies to remove cosmetics contaminated with asbestos from store shelves. Instead, it can only issue consumer safety alerts and request that companies voluntarily recall unsafe products, as was the case after recent FDA product testing documented the presence of asbestos contamination in 9 cosmetic products.
As of late March, Johnson & Johnson is facing nearly 20,000 lawsuits related to its talc-based baby powder. In late June, a Missouri appellate court ordered J&J to pay $2.1 billion to women who developed ovarian cancer after using its asbestos-contaminated talcum powder.
Lax federal regulation of the $100 billion domestic cosmetics industry created the perfect storm of opportunity for J&J to market a product as ‘pure’ and ‘gentle’ that it knew was testing positive for asbestos contamination. Documents produced during J&J litigation revealed the company was aware since the late 1950s that the talc used in its Johnson’s Baby Powder was sometimes contaminated with asbestos. As sales declined, internal J&J documents also show the company began aggressively marketing its talc-based baby powder to African American, Latinx and overweight women despite its knowledge of the product’s link to ovarian cancer.
While J&J did the right thing when it finally decided to stop selling its talc-based baby powder in North America the cosmetic giant’s intention to keep marketing its potentially hazardous product internationally and sell down current inventory in North America is reckless, irresponsible and will continue to have a disproportionately negative impact on women of color across the globe.
It is a double standard and simply not okay for J&J to allow conventional retailers and Dollar Stores to sell down their inventory of talc based baby powder, or engage in downstream dumping to other global markets, given the well-documented scientific evidence linking asbestos to cancer and mesothelioma. J&J should err on the side of precaution, given what they have known for decades about the possible contamination of talc by asbestos, one of the deadliest chemicals on the planet.
Please join us in calling on J&J to immediately stop selling its talc-based baby powder globally and recall and safely dispose of any existing inventory. Only then will consumers in the more than 60 countries where J&J does business be protected from the serious health risks associated with exposure to its potentially asbestos-contaminated talc-based baby powder.
Companies like J&J have shirked their responsibility for cosmetic safety for too long and have too much sway over federal regulators when it comes to protecting the public from cancer-causing chemicals in the beauty and personal care products we use every day. That is why we are also calling on the U.S. Congress to support the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2019, introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, to ensure everyone has access to safe cosmetics, free of asbestos and other highly toxic chemicals of concern. Call on your congressional representatives to support this critical cosmetic safety reform bill today!
Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) is the leading national science-based policy and advocacy organization working to prevent breast cancer by eliminating our exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a project of BCPP, is a national coalition of women’s health, environmental health and justice, consumer rights groups and forward-thinking cosmetics companies.
New York Times, June 2020: Women With Cancer Awarded Billions in Baby Powder Suit
Reuters, December 2018: Special Report: J&J knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder
New York Times, May 2020: Johnson & Johnson to End Talc-Based Baby Powder Sales in North America
Wall Street Journal, October 2019: Johnson & Johnson’s Legal Challenges Mount
Baby Powder Battles, January 2018: Johnson & Johnson Internal Documents Reveal Asbestos Worries