Southern California Record

Friday, December 6, 2019

Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson attack concentration testing method in woman’s mesothelioma trial

State Court

By John Sammon | Nov 22, 2019

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LOS ANGELES – Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson on Thursday attempted to blunt a central premise advanced by plaintiff Amy Fong’s lawyers that a form of testing known as concentration not used by the company could have spotted asbestos in the baby powder she alleges caused her mesothelioma.

“There were a number of problems with concentration,” John Hopkins, former research and safety director for Johnson & Johnson, said in a deposition. “Tests showed that it (concentration) was unsatisfactory, very inaccurate and unsuitable.”

The trial in the Los Angeles Superior Court is being streamed live courtesy of Courtroom View Network.

Fong, 48, a resident of Pasadena, sued Johnson & Johnson and its talc powder supplier Imerys Talc America claiming she developed mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the lungs, as a result of breathing in asbestos-contaminated baby powder over a long period of time.

Fong’s attorneys allege talc powder mined in Korea and inhaled by Fong in Hong Kong where she lived during the 1970s is the cause of her disease.

Johnson & Johnson attorneys argue the woman's mesothelioma could have been contracted from asbestos in fumes inhaled from an incinerator at a landfill near her home in Hong Kong.

Hopkins, a resident of the United Kingdom who today runs his own toxicology consulting business, served with Johnson & Johnson from 1976 to 2000. He is considered the company's top corporate spokesman and appears as an expert witness frequently.

Kimberly Branscome, an attorney for Johnson & Johnson, repeated deposition questions asked of Hopkins back in January. Hopkins' answers to the questions were then read out for a jury by a court clerk. A photo of Hopkins was displayed during the session.

Developed during the 1970s, concentration is a method of testing talc powder for asbestos by spinning the powder in a tube filled with heavy liquid that separates the powder from heavier materials. The heavy residue can then be studied under a microscope.

Two important expert witnesses for Fong, Dr. William Longo, a microscope researcher from Georgia, and Alice Blount, testified earlier that asbestos had been found in the powder using the concentration technique.

Hopkins said the company had considered using the heavy liquid concentration method.

“Why was concentration not used?” Branscome asked.

“There were meetings between myself and Dr. (F.D.) Pooley (researcher in Wales, U.K.),” Hopkins said. “There were also studies done by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It was decided it (concentration) was not the best way forward. It was not a valid (testing) technique.”

Hopkins said the company instead decided to rely on use of the transmission electron microscope (TEM), as it was capable of detecting tiny fragments of asbestos and was superior to the concentration method. In addition, the company used X-ray diffraction to analyze a mineral's crystal structure and the polarized light microscope (PLM).

Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson have frequently stated the FDA declined to adopt the concentration method. Researchers agree it cannot spot chrysotile, one of six asbestos-related minerals, because chrysotile has a different density than the other minerals.

Hopkins said testing of the talc powder both by Johnson & Johnson officials in-house and by using outside independent testing labs like the McCrone Group in Illinois had consistently exceeded industry standards during the 1970s and beyond.

“When talc is mined, it’s taken in baseball-size chunks to be ground into powder,” Hopkins said. “It’s washed (numerous times) with detergent. It is turned into a cake that is dried to produce very high-quality talc.”

Hopkins explained that cosmetic talc for baby powder is very different than the industrial-grade talc used for making roofing shingles or as filler in auto tires. Pharmaceutical talc powder is used to make aspirin tablets and also to treat a collapsed lung by preventing fluid buildup.

“Cosmetic talc is 5 percent of the talc produced,” Hopkins said. “Very few mines meet the standards for cosmetic talc.”

One such mine is located in the Italian Alps. In addition to Korean talc, the powder has also been mined in Vermont and China.

Hopkins said talc powder had been tested by Johnson & Johnson as much as 16 times a day, five days a week.

“Did you ever see any report that said there was asbestos in the talc powder?” Branscome asked.   

“None reported asbestos in the Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder,” Hopkins responded.

Hopkins added that Johnson & Johnson had over the years led the way and raised the bar over competitors in testing talc for purity.

Fong's attorneys later in the day challenged Hopkin's statements about meeting with Pooley to discuss the concentration method, saying Hopkins had not retained documents noting down what was said in the meetings but had only recalled them from memory. Plaintiff attorneys also played a video in which a Johnson & Johnson company executive described the baby powder as a "golden egg" based on the image of a mother-baby bond.

"We need to protect and nurture and make this (product) a platform for growth," the official said in the clip.

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Los Angeles Superior CourtJohnson & Johnson

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