The stock price of pharmaceutical and medical-products giant Johnson & Johnson plunged 10 percent Friday after a news report said the company knew for decades that raw ingredients used in its talcum powder sometimes contained small amounts of asbestos, which can cause cancer.
The company strongly denied the report by Reuters, which published a lengthy investigation citing documents, many decades old, that have emerged in litigation.
Reuters said that from at least 1971 until the 2000s, Johnson & Johnson’s raw talc and finishing powders tested positive for asbestos, although the majority of test documents Reuters reviewed showed no asbestos.
The report said company officials fretted over the test results while keeping the information private and failing to disclose the test results to regulators and the public. Johnson & Johnson called the Reuters article “one-sided, false and inflammatory’’ and a “conspiracy theory.”
The company has been hit with lawsuits by plaintiffs who claim use of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder and Shower to Shower powder caused a form of cancer caused mesothelioma, which is triggered by asbestos exposure. It also has been subjected to lawsuits by plaintiffs alleging their ovarian cancer was caused by its products.
A jury in St. Louis this year awarded $4.7 billion to 22 women who claimed the products caused their ovarian cancer. The company said it planned to appeal that verdict and has continued to deny that its products caused harm.
Some documents have trickled out publicly as part of court proceedings, but Reuters said it gained access to thousands of company records that had been filed under seal.
Talcum powder is made from the mineral talc, which sometimes naturally contains some traces of asbestos, according to the website of the American Cancer Society. The cosmetics industry in 1976 adopted voluntary guidelines that said talcum products should be free of asbestos.
Many of the documents cited by Reuters are internal Johnson & Johnson correspondence by executives who debated the presence of small amounts of asbestos in talc, much of it mined in Vermont, and tried to persuade regulators that the amounts were tiny and not harmful.
But the evidence appears to show that Johnson & Johnson turned over favorable test results to the Food and Drug Administration but withheld test results that showed the talc contained asbestos, a point cited by a New Jersey judge this year affirming a verdict against the company.
Johnson & Johnson attorneys told Reuters that test results revealing possible asbestos were from talc batches destined for industrial uses, not for baby powder.
“Thousands of independent tests by regulators and the world’s leading labs prove our baby powder has never contained asbestos,’’ Johnson & Johnson said in its statement Friday.
The use of asbestos-free talc also has become controversial. In 2006, an arm of the World Health Organization issued a statement that talc used in the genital areas could cause ovarian cancer, but the American Cancer Society says the evidence of that claim is unclear.
“Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase,’’ according to the society’s website. “Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk.’’
The FDA, too, has grappled with the issue. In 2014, it rejected a request to add a warning label to talcum powder after it found no link between the product and cancer. But The Washington Post reported last year that the summary for one study, funded by the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health, says “talc’s effects on female genital system tissues have not been adequately investigated.”