report: j&j knew their baby powder causes cancer

December 18, 2018
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When I was a girl, my mother would sprinkle baby powder in her underthings before putting them on. All her sisters and her aunts did, too. A generation of Black women being sold the idea that our bodies are unclean.

Now it’s killing us. And the people responsible may have known all along.

A new report from Reuters found that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, Johnson & Johnson powder sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos.  According to the report, company officials not only knew about it, but they actually worked to figure out how to hide it.

The report states: “In 1976, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was weighing limits on asbestos in cosmetic talc products, J&J assured the regulator that no asbestos was “detected in any sample” of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973. It didn’t tell the agency that at least three tests by three different labs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in its talc — in one case at levels reported as “rather high.”

An internal memo used during a lawsuit by the family of the late Jacqueline Fox, a Black woman who died of cancer after using baby powder, Johnson & Johnson targeted Black women to account for slumping sales. The memo suggested the company “investigate ethnic (African-American, Hispanic) opportunities to grow the franchise,” noting that these women accounted for a high proportion of sale.

“African American consumers in particular will be a good target with more of an emotional feeling and talk about reunions among friends, etc., team up with Ebony magazine.” It suggested promotions in churches, beauty salons, and barbershops, and Patti LaBelle or Aretha Franklin as celebrity endorsers, which neither did.

Companies like Johnson & Johnson exploit  Black women by telling us something is wrong with our bodies; then selling us products that can kill us to fix it. About twice as many Black women douche and deodorize compared with our white women, according to research by Francesca Branch, Tracey J. Woodruff, Susanna D. Mitro and Ami R. Zota. These researchers found that like baby powder, over-the-counter douches and vaginal deodorizers contain ingredients like phthalates that are linked to cancer.

In an article for Time, associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley points out how racist stereotypes about Black women’s bodies date back to slavery.  “The need to alter enslaved women’s vaginal odor and discharge adds a misogynist twist to pernicious stereotypes of Blacks’ ‘strong and very disagreeable odor,’ to quote Thomas Jefferson. If racism posits that Blacks reek, and misogyny teaches us that vaginas are rank, how difficult does it become for Black women to love the scent of our healthy vaginas?”

Johnson & Johnson exploited these racist stereotypes about Black women’s bodies to continue to market a product to our moms, aunties, and grandmothers even when they knew it was  unsafe. Will there be any justice for a generation of Black women tricked into harming themselves while others profited?