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[dupe] Johnson and Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder (reuters.com)
291 points by r_singh 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 82 comments

I would like to highlight this comment and HN policy on reposts: https://news.ycombinator.com/newsfaq.html

Particularly, this article received significant attention just in the last few days and should be removed as a duplicate.

We shouldn't be surprised that this sort of thing happens from time to time.

What are the incentives?

If you're an exec in charge of some product, you want to sell the product. You don't want to be pulling it, you'll never get promoted like that. And you know more about how to move product than about asbestos testing results, that's for sure.

And chances are nothing will be discovered. And if it is discovered it will take a long time and you'll be long gone. And if it turns out to be really bad, you don't personally pay. The company pays.

Not saying I have an answer. I'm sure there's quite a few people within a company that would know about the findings, and they all have reasons to either keep things going, or you could call it a psychological bias towards diminishing the severity in their own minds.

> Not saying I have an answer.

Well, I do have a simple one. You take each person that you can show that knew about the problem, propose a punishment proportional to the power they had, and send them into a judicial system where they can defend themselves before facing the punishment.

The fact that things do not seem to work this way is disconcerting.

Eat your own dogfood.

Let them douse their babies in asbestos, drink fracking water, or force them to watch Scientology advertisements.

Cause they will always say "i didn't know" and you can't prove anything

Ignorance of the law is not a defence.

Not knowing that an employee of a company broke the law and you're a director or more senior manager probably shoots down any chance of a due diligence defence.

> What are the [Executive's] Incentives

I think it's very important to keep your frame. With passive investors who simply are not privy to any of the decisions and middle management who are often powerless, our question should be how we make executives responsible for the actions they oversee. Especially when those actions are discovered to be harmful years after they have left.

Perhaps one option is that all executive stock options and compensation over a particular amount should be held in trust, distributed only incrementally, so that their "privatization of profits" can be recovered in the case of material damages done by the company while it is under their direction & control.

The other thing we could do is give standing to middle management so they can sue executives from this trust if they can show executives were negligent. Incentivize middle management to have a financial stake in preventing unsafe behavior.

> Not saying I have an answer

The answer must involve making the risks outweigh the benefits, through both an increased probability of being caught and a higher level of punishment.

Which is why we have the class action law suit and whistleblower protection statutes.

(Both of which, sadly, seem to have become partisan issues in the modern world...)

That's the target, but how do you reach it without creating more issues?

Say you have a stringent approval process run by a government agency. Well that takes time. If the product actually works fine you've lost out on the benefits in the meantime.

You can get most of the benefit by testing the product after it hits the market and hit those found harmful with high punishments. Bonus points if not just the company is liable but someone in higher management can be personally held liable.

Testing before it hits the market is safer, but giving compliance departments enough incentive to care gets you 95% of the way.

One thing I am confused about (maybe more like suspicious about) is why fines for stuff like this aren't more onerous. There are lots of businesses that just factor in the cost of the fines which are way less than the total margin.

If I were designing regulations like this, and I actually had the goal of curtailing this sort of behavior, the fines would be tied to the total revenue of the product, like (total revenue + capital gains) * 1.25 (where the .25 is the punitive fine %)

That way there's no business tradeoff except "if we get caught, we're fucked". Like, in this situation the fine would be all the revenue ever made with the product for 40 years, and whatever interest they could reasonably calculate, times some proportional punitive amount. J&J would maybe be looking at a bankruptcy for it.

It may be too much, but I'd also be tempted to look into criminal charges for anyone with fiduciary responsibility related to the breach. So like the people who were directly responsible are charged criminally, but also their manager, and that person's manager, and so on up to the CEO. If line workers doing shady things could blow back into jail time for CEOs, certainly CEOs would be way more interested in making certain that everything was on the up and up. Just build in corrective procedures like a window for disclosure to law enforcement or regulators if something shady is discovered internally, to give the company a chance to correct the situation if there's a rogue actor or whatever.

I know the idea is impractical in a variety of ways, and as a person who has run organizations of various sizes it scares me to contemplate because I know first hand that people just do dumb shit sometimes and I can't always stop it.

But the incentives do feel too far the "it's easy and profitable to get away with" side.

Will it make money? Will it kill people?

If the answers are yes, and not too many, most companies will go ahead.

The problem is "not too many" becomes a highly variable number: guns beer opioids cars

> We shouldn't be surprised that this sort of thing happens from time to time.

It happens all the time. You just hear about it one time out of every thousand. The history of industry is littered with these kinds of intentional, knowing abuses of consumers.

> Not saying I have an answer.

Tremendously high penalties that destroy all profitability gained from consumer abuse and prison time for those knowingly engaging in abusive behavior.

> you want to sell the product

but if it has a carcinogen in it? do you really still want to? i fail to understand how humans can behave like this.

"It's probably not that bad" "The results weren't conclusive" "Look, this product was used by millions, we'd know if there was a problem..."

Never depend on a man to understand something when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it.

The system is designed for humans to behave like this. Big corporations allow blame to be diluted across an entire organization, meaning you face very little individual risk as an employee of the company. Furthermore, the employee's job and compensation depend on making the company money.

You do not make money by avoiding a catastrophe that could cost a company money. If you avoid a potential future lawsuit by removing the asbestos, how does that look on a company balance sheet? Looks like you spent money removing the asbestos, but there is no gain from avoiding the lawsuit.

So unless the employee feels the lawsuit is inevitable and imminent, why bother? It's just going to hurt the bottom line and provide no increase in revenue. Even worse, if the public catches on to you fixing the problem, then that could expose the problem existed in the first place.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” - Upton Sinclair

This quote gets brought out a lot, for good reason, but I think people don’t quite grasp its meaning. It’s often understood as meaning that people will play dumb in order to resist you. But it goes deeper than that. A person will literally have a difficult time understanding something if that understanding will put their livelihood on the line.

I would wager that essentially everybody involved in this process had a twisted understanding of the problem that left them convinced that what they were doing was harmless.

When one personally doesn't know the victims it is easy to rationalize.

Exactly. Nobody is surprised. I have asked my coworkers many times to stop using these poisons on their kids. They do not listen. They do not care. One reply that I often listen to is:

"Everything has pesticides in it. If we start caring about these things, we may as well stop living."

Well, I did what I could. The consequences are yours to bear.

Would not the incentives align with at least changing the product? Reduces the risk without pulling it.

Also I have a very hard time following the 'poisoning infants is OK as long as I get a promotion' line of thought.

I've worked in quality control in another industry (brewing) as a process physical chemist. There is always going to a a conflict of interest when you test internally, and the results aren't what the management want to see. However, there are ways to mitigate this.

You can split the tests into three main categories: cosmetic, financial and safety, with different allowed variances for each.

As a financial example, we had to pay excise duty on the alcohol, so the tests for ABV were stringent and cross-checked by reference laboratories. All internal tests were done with robust internal controls using gas chromatography and every few months, a random set of samples would be cross-checked with a reference laboratory by distillation. The internal results could be trusted because they were routinely validated, and the instrumentation calibration was checked for every single run.

When it came to safety, this was also taken seriously. Two incidents I recall were a hoax call from someone claiming they had contaminated the water supply with paraquat (weedkiller) and another where some stainless steel tanks had developed microfractures which caused coolant (high concentration KCl) to leach into the product. In both cases all the stops were pulled out to collect samples and get them checked by a reference laboratory. No one wants the bad publicity or being sued because the product was contaminated with something nasty.

Things were a bit laxer for cosmetic checks (colour, taste, CO2 concentration etc.). However, there was a clear specification for each test detailing min/optimal/max for each metric, and it required management sign off to allow non-conforming batches to be passed through. They were usually blended with higher quality batches to bring it in line with the specification.

So overall, the point I want to make is that where there were legal or safety requirements, having regulations and financial penalties in place did cause the company to care very, very deeply about accurate testing, including having internal tests cross-checked by an independent external laboratory. And for every product defect, there was a chain of accountability via management sign-off, with the understanding that the QC department was independent and impartial. We used to rigourously check every single batch at every stage of production, including multiple replicates for critical tests, and also including the packaged end product. Reading the story about talc, this didn't happen on any appreciable scale. The question I have for talc is this: why didn't they do this level of testing, taking samples from each lorry load out of the mine, after processing and refinement, and after packaging? The testing might not have been as accurate as they might have liked, but they didn't even seem to try to get an impartial picture of the level of asbestos contamination, perhaps because they didn't really want to know, and instead stuck their heads in the sand and pretended the problem didn't really exist. That's what seems wilfully negligent here.

We also had an entire department which stored a few tens of bottles/cans/kegs of each batch, and we would test one of each every few months to check changes throughout and beyond the nominal shelf-life. The story mentions testing a single package of talc from the company museum. The question here is, why didn't they have a library of stored packages from every batch ever made? This would have permitted re-analysis over time. It might have even reduced their liability since they could prove which batches were contaminated and which were not.

A society that values integrity seems like a good place to start.

"from time to time"

"knew for decades"

This apparently happened over and over again, regarding a single product.

The answer is simple. Gargantuan fines and imprisonment for top executives.

> What are the incentives?

You then describe the behavior of a sociopath.

Everybody knew? Talc deposits often occur near asbestos deposits. There's a govt standard for 'cosmetic' talc that addresses asbestos content, that's been around since 1973.

Yep, here in Nevada, we have naturally occurring asbestos near some of our most popular water recreation areas [1]. I know one gov. employee that is required to wear a full hazmat suit to go to the beach if they're on the clock.

On the weekends, they wear a regular swimsuit...

"Asbestos" is a scary word to some, just like "radiation" is to others. but unless the discussion includes concentration levels we're not discussing risk, we're discussing fear.

[1] http://www.clarkcountynv.gov/airquality/announcements/Pages/...

Isn't that kind of irrelevant though since asbestos is only a problem when it's airborne?

I mean the whole thing with baby powder is that it's practically designed to be aerosolized.

Yes, everyone knew, especially the ceramics community. Back in 2006 a potter successfully sued Vanderbilt for contracting mesothelioma due to his use of Nytal, a talc widely used in the pottery community [1]. As of last year this brand of talc is no longer available due to the issue of asbestos contamination. It's widely known that many talcs contain asbestos or "asbestos-like" minerals and can be damaging to the lungs. It's a wonder that those old cartoons show mothers liberally applying clouds of baby powder to babies, those fine particulates hang around in the air for a very long time.

[1]: https://www.levylaw.com/talc-asbestos-mesothelioma/

Did you read the entire article? The FDA was guided by J&J to set the standard at 10x higher than their original proposal, and to reduce testing to an inexpensive test that only detects the least common type of asbestos. Basically, the article contends, the standard that "everybody knew" about is meaningless and was not much more than positive press for J&J.

...and is the health issue of talcum powder real? Is that standard wrong? Is it's risk above the environmental noise level of cancer-causing substances?

Anything else is not much more than ragging on J&J.

The solution to regulatory capture isn’t “create more regulations.”

I doubt the average consumer is aware of the way that talc and asbestos deposit, but moreover, this article is claiming that J&J went above that limit.

Not the millions of mothers who've put it on their infants.

Not only that, J&J appears to meet or exceed that standard, if the article is anything to go by.

They exceed the standard that they lobbied the government to set. How surprising.

When I read about something like that, I’d like to hear more than “traces of”. I’d like to see concentrations and levels of concentrations from which it is considered toxic. Products can even have traces of radioactive material while being harmless.

Did you read the article? They explain that "traces of" was actually as high as 3% in some samples. The bulk of the article explains the tests performed over time including the results of concentration. Not sure what your complaint is, they even link to the original test result documents.

3% of other (minerals?) than talk. Not 3% asbestos to make that clear.

And even then, without a dangerous threshold level, the number is meaningless.

How about none? Is it advertised or listed as containing asbestos in the ingredient list? Do you want to use it on your baby?

"None" doesn't exist in nature. Every product is always contaminated by all sort of chemicals. It's always a matter of concentration. The water with which you prepare you baby milk likely contains cyanide, lead or arsenic. Just not in high enough dose to matter.

1% is the legal limit in the US

I guess that the asbestos rate in the talk follows some none normal distribution. Of all the million bottles, some might have vastly higher rates? I imagine the asbestos is unevenly distributed in the ore in the mine and thus in the resulting batches of talk.

That could be a hypothesis at least. But I agree on the proportion point. I would want to know how much asbestos there is in Kellog's Cornflakes or whatever.

If people started tossing J&J baby powder at J&J executives would that be assault with a deadly weapon?

One exposure might not be sufficient to create a deadly cancer.

The legal discovery process is an interesting one here - we are seeing documents almost 50 years old here, paper records of what, prima facie is damning behaviour.

But who keeps records for fifty years any more? My BigCo Employers delete my mails after a quarter usually. The idea of my emails being dragged up in 20 years is crazy

Edit: I meant to say that new practises like deleting emails are likely to ensure that crimes like this but happening today may well not get discovered, or at least prosecuted.

Good audit trails are vital for justice - and by deleting them are we just encouraging fake news - a lack of trust in what did happen? I have a suspicion that deleting ones organisational memory is likely to be more destructive

Emails are one thing, but product QC results and related communications might well be retained for decades. Not just for liability reasons, but because trends in process behaviour and performance can be observed and acted upon, and correlated with changes to suppliers, machinery, workers' shift patterns, and other factors. This can affect the bottom line.

And now you know why they delete it... At least one of the reasons.

Keeping your own copies might not be a bad idea. Almost certainly a violation of company policy.

Leaded gas. Asbestos insulation. Cigarettes. Fossil fuels. High schools would do well to put on All My Sons every 3 years https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_My_Sons

"All My Sons is based upon a true story... how in 1941–43 the Wright Aeronautical Corporation based in Ohio had conspired with army inspection officers to approve defective aircraft engines destined for military use"

If it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that people died because of this, and that execs knew the results and danger and ignored them, why shouldn't the state(s) charge them personally with murder /manslaughter ? In the end someone, a living, breathing human being, made the final decision to ju$t keep going.

Let them explain it to the jury. Asbestos was found in powder and people died because of it (assuming both can be proven--a judge will have to convinced first and then it goes to trial.)

Money is one part of the equation, you can be jailed for life for murder and asked to pay $15million for killing that person.

Wonder if they sell the same product in Europe. I don't think we have a similar exception as the USA to allowing putting asbestos in cosmetics.

It is worrisome that current, and future "leaders" are discussing the ethics and other nuanced nitpickings.. as if this were a debate class. There should be one - correct - answer.

The whole purpose of making a corporation is to mitigate risk in the first place. That's literally why they came into being. Secondly, it is to concentrate financial power to pursue a joint mission, usually profit. So with these two design forces, there's a structural incentive in the short term for these things to happen. A decades-long awareness of unethical dealings is another side effect of this design: externalizing costs onto society at large.

When companies like Marriott and JJ are doing things like this, people incur great losses and there is little to no repurcussion to the companies.

Meanwhile, some guy in the street will go to prison for selling some weed.

All those who did this at JJ honestly deserves a life sentence at a minimum given abestos exposure leads to mesothelioma.

This is some diabolical stuff - something out of a movie, akin to for example contaminating the water supply in Batman.

So evil.

Big corps who can do anything to capture market share and have some sort leverage over the Government cannot be trusted.

I guess people just forget about all ethics when huge debt / investment / incentive is involved. Leverage over media and governments along with an army of lawyers and bean counters just makes this whole thing possible.

Meanwhile globalisation has arguably made it more difficult for SMEs to market / sell products in industries within which big corps have huge interests.

This is a big reason why I'm for regulation when it comes to health, and environment. Somehow conservative Americans are believed that the 'invisible hand of the market' will solve all problems. But companies will always be in it to make money if they feel they can get away with cutting corners.

Would we rather err on cutting a few percent here and there from company profits due to overhead and inefficiency of regulation? Or err on harming people and the planet?

We saw how the 'invisible hand of the market' played out in the housing collapse of 2008. Even the clown known as Alan Greenspan admitted that his ideology was shaken.

Any government that is susceptible to leverage outside of the POWER OF THE PEOPLE needs to go to jail/be impeached if they succumb to said leverage.

Their only duty, their only fiduciary, their only constituent is WE THE PEOPLE as a collective. It is not Johnson and Johnson.

That said, we live in an odd time. Supposedly we don’t negotiate with terrorists and let hostages die, but we are sending millions of weapons to a country who is known and proven to fund terror and extrajudicial assassinations.

> Their only duty, their only fiduciary, their only constituent is WE THE PEOPLE as a collective

But their re-election hinges on campaign funds and big companies contribute way more than we the people.

It's not like one person is to blame who maliciously put asbestos with the intent to hurt people. Rather is was just ignorance about the dangers, general incompetence, and possibly some greed. No one person to blame.

You can blame ppl for being greedy. The executives for employing ignorant ppl. Lots of blame to go around.

I have a question which I don't believe is answered: these people who knew, where they using the powder on their own babies? Because they could be due to mental minimization of the risks associated with the use of their own products.

If they are, and they could be, then humans are more pro-ignorance than I ever thought.

Honestly, reading that entire thing was exhausting. How obvious does it have to be before we change as a people.

I am speculating about motives here, but it seems to me that this sort of behavior is an example of an all-too-common form of the 'banality of evil', Hannah Arendt's observation / thesis that the holocaust was enabled and implemented by a large cadre of rather ordinary people who were 'just doing their jobs'. In this case, there was no nucleus of genocidal, powerful and violently coercive psychopaths driving the process; it may have been almost self-organizing out of people 'just doing their jobs' in response to the initial mistake of shipping a tainted product, and either not thinking of the ethical issues, or actively suppressing them (some of both, I imagine), all helped along by a dose of self-interest.

This is not intended to be in any way an excuse for what happened here; if anything, it is a cautionary tale, as any of us might, one day, be faced with a choice between just doing our job and doing the right thing.

Double posting. It was just on HN yesterday.

I missed it yesterday and didn't search for it before submitting so that's my bad.

But if it's getting upvotes, I guess it's because other people missed it as well.

Makes these stories more relevant.


Almost as if the “free market” doesn’t regulate itself and generate ethical results...

You realize that the FDA (regulator) was award of these results and still didn’t pull it off the market?

Yes, because the so-called "regulators" are in the hands of the companies which they are supposed to supervise. It's a complete perversion.

As someone who has worked with the FDA I find this laughable. The FDA has very few qualms about bringing the full force of the US govt down on a company.

Maybe, just maybe, the situation is a little more complex than you realize?

Oh damn I hadn’t seen that the FDA knew about it as well. That brings this to a whole new level of fucked up.

Don't forget to include the regulators in your argument, since they were also heavily involved. So much for "the free market".

That is somewhat of my point; the market actually dictates this abusive behaviour and endorses it.

All that matters is profit at all costs. Even if hit with fines, the entity can likely carry on existing because profit permits survival. Regulation needs to require prison for the white collars involved.

If we stop to think about what people are serving time in prison for at this moment, and comparative impact, it is shameful. The people who willingly perpetuated this in the name of profit will continue to have the right to vote, while someone in prison for marijuana may not.

> Regulation needs to require prison for the white collars involved.

You are completely missing the point. Here regulators were aware and judged it was fine to continue selling the product.

We can debate that we both are or aren’t, given it is a cyclical relationship of chicken egg.

The regulators are, in the USA, frequently installed lobbyists with profit-at-all-costs ideologies in place. It is clear that the USA’s concept of “oversight” is complicit in this.

Hard to shift those underlying ideologies.

> The regulators are, in the USA, frequently installed lobbyists with profit-at-all-costs ideologies in place

Then what is the alternative you suggest if you do not even trust the concept of having regulators?

What free market?

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