Less than two weeks after recalling thousands of bottles of Baby Powder due to concerns they might be contaminated with asbestos, Johnson & Johnson announced new tests hadn’t found any trace of the cancer-causing mineral in the talc-based powder.
But according to a new report from The Wall Street Journal, the truth about those Baby Powder tests was actually far more complicated than the account Johnson & Johnson provided to the public.
Johnson & Johnson recalled 33,000 bottles of Baby Powder last month, after testing conducted by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) detected “sub-trace” levels of asbestos in a single bottle purchased online. Despite those findings, the company characterized the Baby Powder recall as precautionary and denied that the products posed a cancer risk.
Johnson & Johnson appeared vindicated just 11 days later, announcing that 15 subsequent tests conducted by an independent laboratory had failed to find any trace of asbestos in the same bottle of Baby Powder. But that wasn’t the whole story.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Johnson & Johnson had initially commissioned a Pennsylvania lab to conduct those tests. Because the company wanted a quick turnaround, the lab deviated from its usual standards and performed the tests in a lab designed specifically for law enforcement gunshot residue analysis. While the Pennsylvania lab did find traces of asbestos in Baby Powder, those results were rendered useless after it was discovered that the testing room had been contaminated by an air conditioner.
So, Johnson & Johnson turned to another lab in Georgia. The company was quick to announce positive results from those Baby Powder tests, even though the findings were strictly preliminary.
Meanwhile, the FDA continued to stand by the results of its testing.
In the statement to The Wall Street Journal, Johnson & Johnson defended the decision to publicize preliminary test results, while acknowledging that it’s continuing to investigate the possibility that Baby Powder might contain some asbestos.
“Given the serious questions raised by the FDA’s test results, our investigation of course started and moved with speed and diligence,” J&J wrote. “We asked the labs to work as quickly as possible to retest those samples so we could better understand what FDA reported.”
It’s easy to understand why Johnson & Johnson would want to put a positive spin on the Baby Powder asbestos controversy. Even though the century-old product accounts for less than 1% the company’s sales, it’s probably one of Johnson & Johnson’s most identifiable brands.
The healthcare products giant is also facing thousands of talcum powder lawsuits that blame asbestos-tainted Baby Powder for causing mesothelioma or ovarian cancer. Confirmation of any such contamination – no matter how slight – could seriously undermine Johnson & Johnson’s defense of those lawsuits.