'Troubled' about talc headlines, senator demands asbestos info from J&J CEO

Sen. Patty Murray wrote to J&J CEO Alex Gorsky to say she's "troubled" by recent talc headlines and wants to learn more. (United States Senate)

Johnson & Johnson has been battling lawsuits and damaging headlines linking its talc powder to cancer—and claiming it hid evidence of asbestos in the product—and now it'll have to answer a prominent senator's questions, too.

In a letter to J&J CEO Alex Gorsky, Sen. Patty Murray, ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said she’s “troubled” by recent developments, including a report in Reuters that J&J covered up asbestos in its talc for decades.

In the letter (PDF), Sen. Murray requested documentation from J&J about past asbestos testing and for decades of communication with the FDA about the product and its safety. The iconic baby powder has come under fire in recent years as thousands of plaintiffs have claimed the product causes cancer, but J&J has denied any link.

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In December, Reuters reported that J&J hid details about asbestos in its talc for decades. After the report, J&J’s share prices fell more than 10%, and the stock hasn’t fully recovered. But J&J has denied that its product is unsafe, and after the Reuters report, Gorsky went on video to reassure consumers about the product.

RELATED: J&J stock tumbles after Reuters reports it hid asbestos in talc

“For over 100 years, Johnson & Johnson has known that the talc in our baby powder is the purest, safest pharmaceutical-grade talc on earth,” the CEO said.

“Very importantly, if we believed our products were unsafe, they would be off the shelves and out of the market immediately,” Gorsky added. “Thousands of tests by global authorities, universities and independent experts repeatedly confirm our talc is safe.”

Murray apparently isn't fully convinced. She asked Gorsky to hand over certain documents to “understand more about efforts by Johnson & Johnson to determine whether there were possible carcinogens in its baby power and how it presented that information to regulators and consumers.”

Documents have shown that J&J debated internally about talc purity, and some talc tests turned up with asbestos in years past, Murray wrote. Still, it's “unclear whether the company disclosed to the FDA that some of its tested samples contained contaminants.”

RELATED: High-stakes talc trial ends in whopping $4.7B verdict for Johnson & Johnson

The senator pointed out that J&J has edited some materials to indicate that its talc may not have always been asbestos-free. Murray wants J&J to respond by Feb. 11 to show how it can say its talc is now asbestos-free and why it can’t say that was always the case. She also has demanded all of the company's communications with the FDA on the subject—dating back to 1966—plus promotional materials for the product and documentation to back up the safety claims in promo materials.

A J&J spokeswoman on Wednesday said the company stands behind talc safety and looks forward to responding to the letter.

Sen. Murray’s interest is just another challenge for J&J as it fends off thousands of lawsuits claiming talc caused cancer. Already, J&J has suffered losses in court worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but it's been able to have verdicts reversed in many cases. In the costliest loss to date, a jury in July ordered the drugmaker to pay $4.7 billion after a trial that combined the claims of 22 plaintiffs. The company said it would appeal and that it was confident it could get the verdict overturned.

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