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Expert witness David Egilman wins billions–and makes enemies–as he fights companies over public health

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Ken Richardson

In a St. Louis, Missouri, courtroom last summer, David Egilman testified in a lawsuit filed by 22 women who claimed to have contracted ovarian cancer from exposure to Johnson & Johnson (J&J) baby powder. Like millions of women before them, they had dusted their babies with the powder and used it on themselves thousands of times. They alleged the talc was tainted with asbestos and that exposure to the carcinogenic fiber likely played a role in their cancers.

Egilman, a professor of family medicine at Brown University who served as a paid expert witness, brought science and medical gravitas to his testimony. He interviewed the women about their frequency and duration of talc use, and he factored in the levels of asbestos that outside scientists had found in samples of talc, which is sometimes mined from formations that also yield asbestos. From those data, he said, he could calculate the women’s doses of the carcinogen, and he argued that their exposure had doubled their risk of ovarian cancer.

J&J had its own experts, who said the talc was asbestos-free and there was no proof that the product caused cancer. But Egilman’s decisive contribution may have come from his scrutiny of company documents. After examining thousands of pages of internal J&J documents unearthed during the litigation, he and his student researchers concluded that J&J found no asbestos in the talc because its tests were not sensitive enough. He compared the company’s methods to trying to weigh a needle on a bathroom scale.

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