Written by Verónica Odriozola
Declaring a Global Week of Action, a coalition of organizations from around the world are demanding that pharmaceuticals giant Johnson & Johnson stop selling its talc-based baby powder.
J&J announced in May that it would no longer sell talc-based baby powder in the U.S. and Canada, where thousands of women are litigating against the company based on ovarian cancer claims. J&J will instead sell only cornstarch-based baby powder. It attributed this decision to changes in marketplace preferences and defends its talc products as safe.
In June 2020, a Missouri appeals court ordered J&J and a subsidiary company to pay $2.1 billion dollars in damages to women who claimed their ovarian cancers were caused by the company’s talc-based products. The cause of the cancers is suspected to be possible asbestos contamination because of its presence in the talc mines. Tests conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year found a sample of J&J’s Baby Powder that contained chrysotile fibers, a type of asbestos, leading to a voluntary recall by the company.
The company has no plans to discontinue sales of these products in other countries. Public health and social justice organizations around the world are decrying this as a double standard.
On August 26th, Black Women for Wellness (BWW) sent a letter to Johnson & Johnson signed by 200 organizations from 50 countries demanding the company immediately stop selling talc-based baby powder. NGOs also urge safe disposal of existing worldwide inventories.
In collaboration with Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) in August, Material Research L3C researched the supply chain of J&J’s talc-based baby powder that leads from the mines to consumers.
We found that the talc used by J&J in the U.S. and Canada, and continues to be used in the rest of the world, originates in talc mines in China, India, and Brazil. Chunks of talc are transported to mills in Houston, Texas, Brazil, India, and Thailand, and ground into powder. From there, the ground powder is mixed with fragrance and other chemicals at J&J bottling plants – the biggest plants are in Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, India and the Philippines. Concerns about asbestos contamination have also been raised in India, one of talc sources distributed to J&J plants and consumers around the world.
J&J corporate documents produced in discovery during legal action reveal that its own suppliers of processed talc had deep concerns about the company’s standards. “J and J has reverted to its previous position of a preference to purchase talc based on cost as opposed to quality and is not interested in maintaining high standards for the personal care industry worldwide,” reads an internal memorandum of Rio Tinto Minerals (RTM) in 2011. RTM ran the Houston talc milling operation at the time.
On August 31, BWW and 200 organizations from 50 countries launched a global week of action that aims not only to inform the public about this issue but also to seek support from people all over the world to join their demand to Alex Gorsky, J&J’s CEO, that the company stop selling its product in other countries as it did in the US and Canada, and to safely dispose of all current inventories.
The organizations also charge, based on internal J&J documents and other information, that J&J talc-based baby powder has been aggressively marketed to women of color and vulnerable communities. They consider this to be a clear act of environmental racism and injustice.
This factsheet from Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, one of the organizations leading the coalition urging Johnson & Johnson to recall talc-based baby powder worldwide, provides more information. The Material Research brief prepared for BCPP can be accessed here.