Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson – A Case of Meretricious Mensuration?

There are a few incontrovertible facts underlying the Ingham fiasco. First, only God can make asbestos; it is not a man-made substance. Second, “asbestos” is not a mineralogical or geological term. The word asbestos developed in an industrial context to designate one of six different minerals that occurred in a fibrous habit, and which had commercial application. Five of the six asbestos minerals are double-chain silicates in the amphibole family: actinolite, anthophyllite, crocidolite, grunerite (known by its non-mineralogical name, amosite, from Amosa, “asbestos mines of South Africa), and tremolite. The sixth asbestos mineral is a serpentine family silicate: chrysotile.

Many other minerals occur in fibrous habit, but not all fibrous minerals are asbestos. Of the minerals designated as asbestos, some refer to minerals that occur in fibrous and non-fibrous habits: actinolite, anthophyllite, grunerite, and tremolite. An analytical report that found one of these minerals could not automatically be interpreted as having “asbestos.” The fibrous nature of the mineral would have to be ascertained as well as its chemical an structural nature.

The asbestos mineral crocidolite is known as riebeckite when non-fibrous; and chrysotile is the fibrous form that comes from a group of serpentine minerals, including non-fibrous lizardite and antigorite.[1]

The term “asbestiform” is often used to distinguish the fibrous habit of those asbestos minerals that can occur in fibrous or non-fibrous form. The term, however, is also used to refer to any inorganic fiber, natural or synthetic that resembles the long, thin habit of the asbestos minerals.[2]

What is a fiber?

The asbestos minerals were commercially useful in large part because of their fibrous habit, which allowed them to be woven into cloth or used as heat-resistant binders in insulation materials. Fibers were very long, thin structures with aspect ratios in the hundreds or thousands. Some of the fibers can fracture into long, thin fibrils. Some of the asbestos minerals can appear in their non-fibrous habit as small cleavage fragments, which may have aspect ratios ranging from 1 to 10. The EPA’s counting protocols count fragments with aspect ratios of 3 or greater as “fibers,” but that does not mean that there is strong evidence that amphibole cleavage fragments with aspect ratios of 3 cause cancer.

According to Johnson & Johnson’s principal brief, the plaintiffs’ expert witness William Longo counted any amphibole particle long and thin enough to satisfy a particular regulatory definition of “fiber” set out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).[3]

Unfortunately, in its opening brief, J&J never explained clearly what separates the asbestiform from the non-asbestiform in the counting process. The appeal presents other potential problems. From a review of the appellants’ briefs, it seems unclear whether J&J disputed Longo’s adherence to the EPA definition of asbestiform. In any event, J&J appears not to have challenged the claim that any “asbestiform” fiber as defined by regulatory agencies can cause cancer. Moreover, plaintiffs’ expert witness, Dr. Jacqueline Moline, opined that cleavage fragments, or non-asbestiform amphiboles cause cancer.[4] This opinion seems highly dubious,[5] but there was NO appellate point in the defendants’ appellate brief to allege error in admitting Moline’s testimony. In addition, the appellate court’s opinion stated plaintiffs’ position that each and every exposure was a substantial causal factor without any suggestion that there was a challenge to the admissibility of this opinion.

What was the estimated exposure?

The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses appeared to be wildly inconsistent in their quantitative estimations of asbestos exposure from the ordinary use of J&J’s talcum powder. According to J&J’s appellate brief:

“Dr. Longo testified that plaintiffs’ use of the Powders would have exposed them to levels of asbestos at least ‘10 to 20 times above’ the amount in every day air that you breathe’. Tr. 1071. He put these exposure levels in the ‘same category’ as occupational levels. Tr. 1073.”[6]

There are many estimates of the ambient asbestos levels in “every day air,” but one estimate on the high side was given by the National Research Council, in 1984, as 0.0004 fibers/cm3.[7] Using Longo’s upper estimate of 20 times the “every day” level yields exposures of 0.008 f/cm3, a level that is well below the current permissible exposure level set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Historically, workers in occupational cohorts experienced asbestos exposures at or even above 50 f/cm3.[8]

David Egilman also gave inflated exposure estimates that he equated with “occupational exposure” to the plaintiffs. Egilman opined, based upon Longo’s simulation study, a NIOSH study that counted all fibers, and a published study of another talc product, that the amount of asbestos dust released during personal use of J&J’s product was as high as 2.2 f/cm3, during the application process. These estimates were not time-weighted averages, and the estimates, such as they are, would be many orders of magnitude lower if they were analyzed as part of an eight-hour work day. Nonetheless, Egilman concluded that the plaintiffs’ exposures to J&J’s talc products more than doubled their ovarian cancer risk over baseline.[9]

In my previous post on Ingham, I noted how scientifically ignorant and irresponsible Egilman’s testimony was with respect to equating talc and anthopyllite.[10]  The Missouri Court of Appeals presented Egilman’s opinion as though it were well supported, and gave perfunctory consideration to J&J’s complaint about this testimony:

“Plaintiffs concede that Dr. Egilman’s intensity values for diapering came from a test that counted all types of fibers released by a sample of the Powders, including fibers that are not asbestos (principally talc fibers). RB124.  Suggesting that any of those fibers was asbestos would be speculative; assuming all of them were, as Dr. Egilman did, is absurd. Plaintiffs respond with the radical (and scientifically false) assertion that talc fibers are ‘chemically identical’ to anthophyllite asbestos fibers and therefore equivalent. Id. But plaintiffs never argued at trial, much less proved, that talc is identical to asbestos. Indeed, their own expert, Dr. Longo, distinguished between anthophyllite fibers and talc. See Tr.1062.”[11]

We should all sympathize with a litigant that has been abused by absurd opinion testimony. The Court of Appeals took a more insouciant approach:

“Defendants maintain Dr. Egilman’s measurements ‘lacked a reasonable factual basis’ for several reasons. However, their arguments are insufficient to render Dr. Egilman’s testimony inadmissible. ‘[Q]uestions relating to the bases and sources of an expert’s opinion affect the weight to be assigned that opinion rather than its admissbility and should be left for the jury’s consideration.’  Primrose Operating Co. v. Nat’l Am. Ins. Co., 382 F.3d 546, 562 (5th Cir. 2004) (alterations in original) (internal quotations omitted). The problems Defendants cite with Dr. Egilman’s testimony go to the weight of his testimony, not its admissibility.”[12]

Curiously, the Missouri Court of Appeals cited a federal court decision that applied an incorrect standard for evaluating the admissibility of expert witness opinion testimony.[13] It is inconceivable that the validity of the expert witness’s bases, and his inferences therefrom, are beyond the judicial gatekeeper’s scrutiny. If Egilman consulted a mercator projection map, from which he concluded the world was flat, would the Court of Appeals from the “Show Me” state shrug and say show it to the jury?

Perhaps even more remarkable than Longo’s and Egilman’s meretricious mensuration was Egilman’s opinion that personal use of talc more than doubled the plaintiffs’ risk of ovarian cancer. In the meta-analyses of studies of occupational asbestos exposure, the summary risk estimates were well below two.[14]

[1]  SeeSerpentine subgroup,” in Wikipedia.

[2]  Lester Breslow, et al., Asbestiform Fibers: Nonoccupational Health Risks at 7 (Nat’l Research Council 1984).

[3]  Appellants’ Brief at 38, in Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson, No. No. ED107476, Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District (St. Louis) (Sept. 6, 2019) (Tr. 1171-73).

[4]  Respondents’ Brief at 37, in Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson, No. No. ED107476, Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District (St. Louis) (Dec. 19, 2019) (Tr.5.3369).

[5]  See, e.g., John F. Gamble & Graham W. Gibbs, “An evaluation of the risks of lung cancer and mesothelioma from exposure to amphibole cleavage fragments,” 52 Regulatory Toxicol. & Pharmacol. S154 (2008).

[6]  Appellants’ Brief at 52.

[7]  Lester Breslow, et al., Asbestiform Fibers: Nonoccupational Health Risks at 3 (Nat’l Research Council 1984).

[8]  Irving John Selikoff, “Statistical Compassion,” 44 J. Clin. Epidemiol. 141S, 142S (1991).

[9]  Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson, Slip op. at 52-53, No. No. ED107476, Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District (St. Louis) (June 23, 2020) (Slip op.).

[10]  See “Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson – Passing Talc Off As Asbestos,” (June 26, 2020).

[11]  Appellants’ Reply Brief at 43, in Ingham v. Johnson & Johnson, No. No. ED107476, Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District (St. Louis) (Mar. 3, 2020)

[12]  Slip op. at 53.

[13]  SeeJudicial Dodgers – Weight not Admissibility” (May 28, 2020) (collecting authorities).

[14]  See M. Constanza Camargo, Leslie T. Stayner, Kurt Straif, Margarita Reina, Umaima Al-Alem, Paul A. Demers, and Philip J. Landrigan, “Occupational Exposure to Asbestos and Ovarian Cancer: A Meta-analysis,” 119 Envt’l Health Persp. 1211 (2011); Alison Reid, Nick de Klerk, and Arthur W Musk, “Does Exposure to Asbestos Cause Ovarian Cancer? A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-Analysis,” 20 Cancer Epidemiol., Biomarkers & Prevention 1287 (2011).

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