As Johnson & Johnson (J&J) battles lawsuits claiming it was aware its popular talcum-based baby powder might have been contaminated with asbestos, shocking new information about the drug company’s involvement in unethical experiments on prisoners in the early 1970s has come to light.
According to newly unsealed court documents, J&J funded a study in 1971 in which asbestos was injected into the skin of Pennsylvania prison inmates, most of whom were Black. At the time, J&J wanted to compare the minerals’ effect on the inmates’ skin to talcum, the key ingredient in J&J’s baby powder.
About the Experiments
J&J paid pioneering dermatologist Albert Kligman, the inventor of Retin-A, to carry out the experiments on inmates at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia. Prisoners received injections of talc and two different types of asbestos in their lower backs to see how their skin reacted. This included an injection of chrysotile asbestos, recognized as the most dangerous form of the mineral, which caused mole-like granulomas (cells clumped together in a raised area) to form on the inmates’ skin. Unknowing subjects, the prisoners were paid as little as $10 for their participation in the experiments.
In another experiment, Kligman tested whether the type of container used to store baby powder had an effect on inmates’ skin. In that experiment, 50 Holmesburg inmates – 44 of whom were Black – had talc from different canisters applied to their skin and covered with dressings.
Kligman also carried out other types of experiments on the largely Black inmate population at Holmesburg Prison, exposing them to viruses, fungus, LSD, and a component of Agent Orange.
While the studies carried out by Kligman are public knowledge, details of J&J’s involvement in the asbestos experiments had not been previously known.
J&J has expressed regret about the studies that Kligman conducted 50 years ago.
About the Lawsuits Against J&J
More than 40,000 lawsuits have been filed against J&J, mostly from women with ovarian cancer or mesothelioma, a relatively rare cancer of the thin membranes that line the chest and abdomen. Consumer advocates started raising concerns decades ago that talc – the key ingredient in J&J’s popular baby powder – contained traces of asbestos. In 2021, J&J faced $1.6 billion in talc-related litigation expenses. In one talc case, J&J was ordered to pay $4.69 billion to 22 plaintiffs, making it one of the largest personal injury verdicts ever.
What are the Risks of Asbestos Exposure?
Asbestos is the name given to six minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers that can be separated into thin, durable threads for use in commercial and industrial applications. Chrysotile asbestos is a form that has been widely used in commercial applications.
Asbestos has been classified as a known human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer) by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). According to IARC, there is sufficient evidence that asbestos causes mesothelioma and cancers of the lungs, larynx, and ovaries.
Asbestos exposure may also increase the risk of asbestosis, an inflammatory condition affecting the lungs that may cause permanent lung damage, as well as other non-malignant lung and pleural disorders.
How We Help Victims of Asbestos Exposure
Seek justice with the help of our experienced asbestos attorneys. For over 20 years, our law firm has represented individuals like you who have been affected by asbestos exposure, aggressively fighting the corporate giants responsible for their dangerous products. If you or a loved one were exposed to asbestos or suffered from a disease caused by asbestos, like mesothelioma, we can help.