LOS ANGELES – An expert witness for Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday attacked the testing techniques of an expert witness for plaintiff Amy Fong in a trial to decide if the company’s baby powder allegedly caused Fong to develop mesothelioma.
“Is it your view that it’s necessary to use the heavy liquid separation technique?” asked Kimberly Branscome, an attorney for Johnson & Jonson.
“It doesn’t hurt,” said Dr. Matthew Sanchez, a geologist with the R.J. Lee Group, an independent testing lab in Pennsylvania. “But you can only look for the heavy minerals. Why we do the transmission electron microscope (TEM) is to look for chrysotile.”
Sanchez said the heavy liquid technique could not spot chrysotile, one of six asbestos-related minerals, because chrysotile is closer in density to talc, the mineral ground up for baby powder. The two don’t separate in heavy liquid testing.
Attorneys for Fong later in the day portrayed Sanchez as a highly paid professional witness who cherry-picked at the truth.
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.
Heavy liquid involves spinning a tube filled with talc to separate it from heavier materials that can then be looked at under a microscope.
Dr. William Longo, a microscope researcher with the MAS lab in Georgia, earlier testified that he identified tremolite and anthophyllite asbestos using microscopes and the heavy liquid technique.
Critics of Johnson & Johnson said the company should have used the heavy liquid method after it was developed in the 1970s because of its sensitivity in detecting asbestos. Company officials declined to adopt it saying it was ineffective and that government agencies like the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) had also declined to adopt the technique.
Plaintiff attorneys allege company officials were frightened of what the heavy liquid approach might find in the powder.
Sanchez criticized Longo’s techniques saying he used only superficial methods that relied too heavily on counting fibers according to their size, or aspect ratio.
“The best approach is the multi-instrument approach,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez indicated using a combination of high-powered microscopes such as the TEM and the polarized light microscope (PLM) in addition to X-Ray diffraction to determine crystal structure is the best testing method.
“Each instrument can only tell you so much,” Sanchez said.
“Did Dr. Longo find asbestos?” Branscome asked.
“No,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez said what Longo found were amphibole (non-asbestos) minerals.
On cross-examination, Joseph Satterley, Fong’s attorney, challenged Sanchez on the truthfulness of his testimony.
“You have not told the whole truth about Johnson & Johnson and its talc testing historically,” he said.
“I have told the truth,” Sanchez disagreed.
“The full story?”
“I have,” Sanchez repeated.
“You have not studied bottles of talc,” Satterley said.
“I was not asked to do that,” Sanchez said.
Satterley told Sanchez he (Sanchez) had reviewed numerous documents dating from the 1970s that found asbestos in talc samples from mines in Vermont and Korea.
“In certain zones at some of the mines,” Sanchez responded.
“Fibrous tremolite has been documented in the Argonaut Mine (Vermont),” Satterley said.
“Yes, I believe that’s accurate,” Sanchez said, repeating that it had been found in certain zones.
“J&J was very concerned about fibrous tremolite in their talc.”
“As evidenced by their efforts to make sure their talc did not contain any,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez earlier testified that Dr. F.D. Pooley, a researcher at Cardiff University in Wales, had done testing that found no asbestos in the powder.
Satterley asked Sanchez if he was aware of an agreement between Johnson & Johnson and Cardiff University in which approval from Johnson & Johnson had to be gained before a report could be issued.
“Did J&J lawyers share this (agreement document) with you?”
“I don’t recall seeing the document,” Sanchez said.
“You’ve not undertaken an investigation (of agreement)?”
“That would be beyond the scope (of my work),” Sanchez said.
Sanchez agreed he had been involved in more than 200 cases for Johnson & Johnson since he was first asked to appear at a trial in 2016.
“In one case alone you (R.J. Lee) billed J&J $264,000,” Satterley said.
“The next case it was $250,000.”
“I don’t recall the specifics,” Sanchez said.
“In 2018 it was $1.8 million.”
“You’re engulfed in work for J&J?”
“A majority of my time, yes,” Sanchez said.