Some companies have to find out the hard way that our world tolerates very few secrets these days. Johnson & Johnson is learning that lesson as we speak, now that it appears there’s a scientifically observable and legally enforceable link between talc — the active ingredient in talcum powder — and various cancers, including lung, ovarian and breast.
As with all cases of this type, the available scientific information seems to swing radically from one extreme conclusion to the next, depending in part on who’s speaking and where you get your news. That’s why it helps to follow the money and learn a little bit about the historical precedent of stories like this one.
The tale of Johnson & Johnson talcum powder is a story long in the making — and it’s also a sadly typical one.
What’s Going On?
Anecdotes become something else entirely when they become as widespread as the picture that’s now emerging. The damage caused by talc-based products has resulted in 4,000 legal cases and $724 million in damages.
Numerous firsthand accounts from Johnson & Johnson talc users — many of them second- or third-generation users of the product — describe the losses of loved ones from cancers which are now linked to talc. Eventually, a decision by a St. Louis jury indicated that the talcum powder in question facilitated the development of cancer in these victims.
The cosmetics giant now regularly pays out damages in the tens of millions, each, to the survivors of cancer victims whose condition was found to be linked to the use of talc.
Here are some additional facts: The company knew about these health risks decades ago, but chose not to act. The U.S. National Toxicology Program knew in 1993 that talcum powder was a known carcinogen and helped provoke the development of cancers. Instead of taking the product off the market, Johnson & Johnson parried the bad publicity with a task force of its own, which was little more than a stream of propaganda called the Talc Interested Party Task Force. The initiative flooded the airwaves with talking points contradicting the now publically available science on talc.
A Very Old Story
It’s become something of a pattern: Ordinary citizens use a product for years and even go out of their way to introduce that product to their partners, friends and children. Many years later, it comes to light that this product poses a specific and possibly deadly health risk. Worse, it appears that the company that marketed that product knew about that risk, buried it with conflicting information, and continued selling the product anyway.
It happened with cigarettes and their link to various cancers. Big tobacco continues to publicly dispute the scientific consensus.
It happened when Volkswagen admitted to cheating on emissions tests for years. It didn’t just betray customers — it betrayed anybody who wants a livable planet.
It happened with the world’s largest oil companies when they buried scientific data on climate change four decades ago — long before the situation became as perilous as it is today.
The point is, the question to ask in the wake of Johnson & Johnson’s betrayal of trust is not "Them too?” but “Who’s next?” Some of these are products we’ve worked into the very fabric of our lives. We depend on and occasionally evangelize about them. It’s unfortunate that the truth had to come to light the way it did, but it’s also encouraging to know that there are fewer ways for this kind of betrayal to hide. Take that as a silver lining.
Isn’t It Time We Said “Enough?”
It actually gets even worse for Johnson & Johnson. It’s bad enough that the company appears to have been aware of talcum powder’s health risks for years — but it seems Johnson & Johnson actually targeted minority populations specifically with its marketing campaigns, engaging in a cynical and overtly racist misinformation campaign to help mitigate losses and maintain sales of the product in lower-income communities of color.
Internal documents appear to confirm that the company targeted minority communities specifically by stoking race-based stereotypes and prejudices, which talcum powder allegedly solves. Many of the stories emerging now concern lower-income black women sharing Johnson & Johnson products with their daughters — a kind of rite of passage about the delicacies of female hygiene.
Nothing wrong with that, until you realize some of these stereotypes were propped up by sham science — science that Johnson & Johnson wielded indiscriminately to downplay the risks and boost the benefits of a product that had already been found dangerous.
Johnson & Johnson’s ability to get away with this at first also brings to light the many issues surrounding the “European ideal of beauty” and how racist and unrealistic beauty standards cause women to turn to products that aren’t necessarily of good quality. Companies know this happens, and unfortunately, many choose to capitalize on it.
Be Aware, Be Vocal
September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. That means there’s never been a better time to be aware — and vocal — about products like Johnson & Johnson talcum powder. Cancer is wildly destructive as it is.
I had the good fortune of receiving a lot of the research in this piece from Morgan Statt, a representative for Consumer Safety, which is an organization that concerns itself with discovering and spreading the word about dangerous products. Morgan told me a little bit about her organization’s cause:
"You would think the products we're buying, especially those that are household names, would be safe for us to use. But, the sad reality is that business can take priority over health. That's why we at Consumer Safety have made it our mission to bring awareness to potentially harmful products in order to prevent as many people as we can from receiving terrible news like a cancer diagnosis.”
As Johnson & Johnson’s duplicity about talcum powder and cancer risk came to light, Consumer Safety began investigations of its own, and has served as a strong voice for consumer advocacy ever since. The site has resources available for anybody who feels they might have a case against Johnson & Johnson.
Morgan’s advice for anyone who may be concerned about product safety is to simply start reading:
“Read ingredient labels, scientific studies, FDA press announcements and even wellness websites to stay informed. Years from now, your health will most likely thank you.”
Additionally, and importantly, know there are alternatives to many of the products whose reputation you feel isn’t worthy of trust any longer. For example, there are several less fraught alternatives available for talcum powders and their variants. Except in cases where the public good is in question — as with vaccinations — you have a right to feel good about what you put into or on your body. If you don’t, find out everything you can from verifiable and empirical sources, and then make the necessary lifestyle changes.
Top photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Mike Mozart
More from BUST