Asbestos has been killing Americans - and industries have been covering up asbestos disease - since at least the early 1900s. (See the complete story here.) Nearly the entire industrialized world bans asbestos but not the United States. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find this lethal substance making news yet again, yet we genuinely are.
This week, asbestos news stories have ranged from the predictable to the unusual to the extraordinary. Let’s start with the predictable.
A physician who treats dying asbestos victims just warned that “anyone who worked at Portsmouth [Maine] Naval Shipyard or was in the Navy prior to 1975 may have been exposed to asbestos [because].… ‘[T]hey threw asbestos on everything,’ he said.” Then there’s the idiot contractor hired by Kodak that sprayed asbestos near Kodak workers. One dying victim just got a jury verdict to help his family after he’s gone (dead) in a few months. And Ford is trying to reduce a Delaware verdict for victims against the car company. No real surprises there.
Next, the unusual. In 2017, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey launched an initiative called Healthy Buildings, Healthy Air in 2017, “to enforce safety laws relating to asbestos and raise awareness for how dangerous the substance is.” Healey’s office just reported some of the program’s successes, including obtaining “more than $3.4 million in penalties for state asbestos law violations,” and resolving cases “against 35 defendants” for violations that were documented at “schools, nursing homes, community centers, and more.” Those are just some highlights.
Finally, the extraordinary. There is really no other way to describe the new Reuters investigation about the 50-year deliberate failure of the federal Food and Drug Administration to remove asbestos from Johnson & Johnson baby power. Said Reuters:
Over the past 50 years, the FDA has relied upon–and often deferred to–industry even as outside experts and consumers repeatedly raised serious health concerns about talc powders and cosmetics, a Reuters investigation found.
Again and again since at least the 1970s, the agency has downplayed the risk of asbestos contamination and declined to issue warnings or impose safety standards, according to documents produced in court proceedings and in response to public records requests.
Some of facts here are extremely disturbing:
The FDA began looking into talc safety in 1971 after researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York found what appeared to be asbestos in unnamed brands of talc powder.
Two years later, FDA records show, the agency found asbestos in a sample of Shower to Shower, a J&J powder at the time that was made with the same talc as Johnson’s Baby Powder. The FDA never publicly announced the finding.
J&J told Reuters the result was not final, citing findings in an FDA table issued in 1976. But that table, reviewed by Reuters, is ambiguous, listing no result for the type of asbestos found in 1973. J&J told Reuters the gap means no asbestos was found.
That same year, J&J, other talc companies and their trade group, the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association, persuaded FDA officials that manufacturers could monitor the safety of their own products, according to records J&J and the group produced in litigation.
The FDA dropped plans to impose testing and purity standards for talc powders and cosmetics. The trade group published its own test, which was voluntary for companies to use. The written standard for that test acknowledges that it cannot detect most types of asbestos at low levels, nor one common type–chrysotile–at all.
In a statement to Reuters, the trade group said it believed that chrysotile was not commonly linked to talc used in cosmetics.
Chrysotile is the type of asbestos the FDA-commissioned test found in Baby Powder this year. It also was found in several tests conducted by labs for J&J on its talc from 1972 through 2003, according to records produced in litigation.
For everyone so very focused on our current President, it’s important to remember that the FDA under every President since Nixon is implicated or complicit here. One is as captured by industry as next. Sad to say.