A U.S. House subcommittee on Tuesday weighed whether to grant the Food and Drug Administration more authority to mandate safety recalls of cosmetic products, including asbestos-containing talcum powder.
The hearing before the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform, comes after the FDA last week warned consumers in a safety alert that four cosmetic products from retailers Claire’s and Justice contained asbestos, a known carcinogen. (Claire’s voluntarily recalled the products on Monday.)
It also comes as Johnson & Johnson has suffered massive jury verdicts over its baby powder.
“Juries across America are not waiting for Congress to act,” said Subcommittee Chairman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois. “Consumers use these products trusting they are safe and will not cause harm to themselves or their loved ones. Today’s hearing was just our first step in protecting consumers from potentially hazardous or carcinogenic products.”
Pressure has intensified against Johnson & Johnson, which lost several jury verdicts in the past two years in trials involving victims of ovarian cancer and mesothelioma, including a $4.7 billion award last year. Last month, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued subpoenas in an investigation of asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Gerald Connolly, D-Virginia, called Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder a “tragic case study.”
“When we mindlessly deregulate, or don’t regulate, to protect the public, this is what can happen,” he said. “And I hope we will all remember that, and, frankly, I hope this hearing will lead to some legislative direction that empowers FDA especially in the cosmetic field.”
Last week, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which would give the FDA the authority to review ingredients in personal care products and require safety labeling and recalls of products “that threaten consumer safety.”
“Families trust that these products are safe, but unfortunately many ingredients have never been independently evaluated,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Our bipartisan legislation, which has the support of numerous companies and consumer advocacy groups, would modernize FDA’s oversight authority and give consumers confidence that everyday personal care products won’t harm their health.”
Johnson & Johnson has supported the bill but also noted that the FDA had found no asbestos in its baby powder.
In a statement on Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson criticized the hearing because “the testimony was biased with a majority of witnesses being connected to litigation against our company.”
“It was remarkably one-sided,” said Johnson & Johnson attorney Bart Williams, a partner at Proskauer Rose in Los Angeles, about the hearing. “There was only a desire to hear from those who claim that talc causes cancer, and they spoke as if it’s established that it does, and it’s absolutely not established. In fact, the science points [in] the other direction.”
One witness, Dr. Anne McTiernan, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, is an expert for plaintiffs attorneys in multidistrict litigation over talcum powder against Johnson & Johnson. She explained to the subcommittee how talc in baby powder, when used in the perineal area, can migrate to the fallopian tubes and ovaries to cause cancer.
“I believe talcum powder products do cause ovarian cancer,” she said. “The results are really consistent.”
The hearing also featured Marvin Salter, whose mother died of ovarian cancer after a lifetime of using Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder. A jury in Missouri awarded her widow $72 million in 2016. The Missouri Court of Appeals later overturned the award.
“I sincerely believe J&J took my mother’s life,” Salter said. He said that had his mother known about the safety risks of talcum powder, she would not have used the product. “Awareness is key. So many people are blind to the fact that this product is harmful, and I’m thankful we’re bringing light to the subject.”
Ted Meadows and Leigh O’Dell, both principals at Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles in Montgomery, Alabama, which won the $72 million verdict, attended the hearing, along with Michelle Parfitt, of Ashcraft & Gerel in Alexandria, Virginia, who is co-lead counsel with O’Dell in the multidistrict litigation against Johnson & Johnson. Meadows said there were several other ovarian cancer victims and their families behind Salter at the hearing, including Deborah Giannecchini, who won a $70 million award in 2016.
“I thought it was powerful, primarily, because of the number of baby powder victims who were sitting in the audience that have an interest and concern about making sure the public is made aware of the hazards of baby powder,” he said. “I’m hoping that it is the foundation upon which the full committee will move forward and conduct a full investigation.”
Several committee members questioned how Johnson & Johnson continued to sell its baby powder despite knowing for decades that talcum powder contained asbestos. Others asked about Johnson & Johnson’s marketing toward African-Americans and Latinos, which Ro Khanna, R-California, called “absolutely disgusting” and “appalling.”
Many asked what power to give the FDA, which noted its restrictions under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 in the safety alert last week.
The third witness, Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., whose nonprofit group claimed to have found talc in 2,000 cosmetic products, suggested that requiring warnings would be appropriate.
“Today’s testimony, and the support of so many cosmetic companies for legislation, is evidence that self-regulation no longer makes sense,” Faber said. “A warning would at least alert consumers to this potential risk and allow them to make their own choices.”