Johnson & Johnson, maker of Baby Powder and Shower to Shower, was once the “most Trusted Brand in America.” However, if Friday on Wall Street was any indication, they are losing that trust quickly. On December 14, Johnson & Johnson shares fell by nearly 15 points, or 10 percent – effectively reducing the company’s value by $40 billion.

This plunge came in the wake of the publication of a Reuters investigation, in which documents were discovered showing that Johnson & Johnson was fully aware that its talc was contaminated with asbestos fibers – and went to great lengths to withhold that information from the public.

Johnson & Johnson, already reeling from a $4.7 billion verdict last summer and facing approximately 12,000 additional talc-related lawsuits, has always claimed that its talc products have “never contained asbestos, and never will.” However, documents dating back nearly half a century show that small amounts of asbestos have been found in the company’s finished products, as well as the raw talc used in their production.

The deception went even further. Working closely with a lobbying organization then known as the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association (now called the Personal Care Products Council), Johnson & Johnson managed to influence legislation and limit regulation that would restrict the allowable amount of asbestos in talc products. Johnson & Johnson also allegedly funded its own “scientific studies” on talc-containing products.

It is a geological fact that talc is regularly found in close proximity to asbestos deposits. In 2017, Colgate-Palmolive settled a lawsuit with a Pennsylvania woman who used its talcum powder products and developed mesothelioma, a deadly, painful and invariably fatal form of cancer that attacks the visceral lining. Before that, CP was ordered to pay $13 million to a woman who sued the company, claiming that her mesothelioma was caused by the talc used in the company’s Cashmere Bouquet.

The particular form of asbestos that has been linked to mesothelioma is known as “tremolite.” It consists of very small, hard, needle-like fibers that literally burrow through tissues from the inside, causing the kind of chronic inflammation that leads to the formation of malignant tumors. This was the variety of asbestos that was found in the talc used in Johnson & Johnson products as well.

Asbestos cancer, particularly mesothelioma, is a disease that takes many years, or even decades to manifest symptoms. By the time symptoms are apparent, it is too late for anything other than palliative treatments.

In response to the recent investigative report, Johnson & Johnson posted a statement on its website, calling the Reuters report “one-sided and inflammatory.” In the statement, the company continues to defend its products, insisting that they are “safe and asbestos-free.” However, medical science has been unable to find any other cause of mesothelioma other than exposure to the “hard” asbestos fibers, such as that alleged to have been found in the talc used in Baby Powder and Shower to Shower.

All of this adds one more headache for Johnson & Johnson, which is spending astronomical sums these days defending itself in court. So far, litigation over talc has not been going well for the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical health care giant. These recent revelations are not going to make things any better.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.