As Johnson & Johnson continues to face criticism over its “Texas two-step” plan to shield itself from tens of thousands of talc powder cancer lawsuits by offloading its liabilities to a bankrupt subunit, unsettling news about the company’s past has surfaced.
Bloomberg News broke a story that in the early 1970s, J&J funded research that studied the effects of injecting asbestos into the skin on a small group of African American men who were inmates at a Pennsylvania correctional institution.
The 10 prisoners were also injected with talc. The purpose of the study was to compare the effects of both minerals. Asbestos is a known carcinogen while talc is a mineral that is often located right next to asbestos in the ground. Nearly 40,000 people have filed lawsuits against J&J, having alleged that they developed cancer because the company’s talc products were contaminated with asbestos. Some expert witnesses have testified in trials that asbestos contamination in talc products is unavoidable.
Through a company spokesman, J&J defended the funding of the study by stating in an email to FiercePharma.com, “The dignity of clinical testing participants must always be the highest moral imperative, which is why this type of testing was discontinued more than 40 years ago.”
The company spokesman added, “At the time of these studies, nearly 50 years ago, testing of this nature among this cohort set was widely accepted, including by prominent researchers, leading public companies, and the U.S. government itself.”
The kind of research conducted at Holmesburg Prison outside of Philadelphia has been known for decades. What had not been known prior to Bloomberg’s breaking story was the extent to which J&J funded the research. The company provided funds to the late University of Pennsylvania dermatologist, Albert Kligman, who conducted several human experiments—mostly on black inmates—at the prison.
J&J wasn’t the only corporate entity funding human experiments at the prison. Dow Chemical was also a major funder. In addition, the U.S. government provided funding for the experiments.
J&J’s role in funding the research came to light last year during two talc cancer trials. Some of the prisoners injected with asbestos developed granulomas, an infection characterized by clumps of white blood cells that manifest as raised splotchy skin.
This isn’t the first time J&J has been in the crosshairs for engaging in dubious, racist acts. The company has been also accused of heavily marketing their talc products to African American women after sales of such products to white women declined.
J&J pulled its controversial products containing talc from North American stores in 2020. Dozens of organizations have called for a global ban on J&J talc-based products. The company is hoping to resolve all talc lawsuits with a $2 billion settlement through its bankrupt subunit, LTL management, a corporate entity approved recently by a judge. Considering that just one talc cancer trial in 2018 alone awarded 21 women over $2 billion, activists are highly critical of J&J’s plan to resolve all talc liabilities for that amount.