J&J suit resurfaces decades-old prisoner testing controversy

March 9, 2022

Johnson & Johnson’s inclusion of prisoners in clinical trials of potentially cancer-causing injections has resurfaced, amidst ongoing lawsuits over its baby powder.

The pharma giant funded a study in 1971 that injected 10 prisoners with two types of asbestos – tremolite and chrysotile – and a talc shot in their lower backs, according to a report from Bloomberg that surfaced after court documents were unsealed.

Talc and asbestos, the two substances in question, have been at the center of controversy for J&J. Lawsuits filed against J&J claim that the company’s baby powder contains asbestos and has caused cancer.

The prison studies were led by Albert Kligman, a dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Kligman, who led hundreds of human experiments at Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania, conducted several studies related to J&J’s baby powder development.

In one of them, talc was applied to participants' skin and then covered. The study resulted in raised clumps of cells on participants’ skin, called granulomas, that are linked to lung disease or other ailments related to asbestos exposure, according to David Egilman, a medical professor at Brown University who has testified as an expert for plaintiffs in several talc cases about Kligman’s 1971 report. Of the 50 men selected to participate in that study, 44 were Black.

Kligman never took responsibility for the damaging trials, saying they were in-line with “standard protocol for conducting scientific investigations at the time.” On the other hand, J&J has condemned the studies saying they “in no way reflect the values or practices we employ today.” The company maintains its baby powder is safe and does not contain asbestos, despite a mountain of cases against it.

In 2019, the company recalled a batch of the powder after investigators from the U.S. FDA found sub-trace levels of chrysotile asbestos in one bottle. Then, in 2020, amidst a sea of lawsuits, J&J took its talc-based baby powder off the market in the U.S. and Canada, citing low demand. The company has offered up $2 billion in settlement for the cases.