Gentle Enough for a Baby? How Talc Has Caused Panic and Yielded High-Dollar Verdicts | The American Association For Justice Archive

Gentle Enough for a Baby? How Talc Has Caused Panic and Yielded High-Dollar Verdicts

Carmen S. Scott & Meghan Johnson Carter
Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Of all recognized minerals, talc perhaps feels the silkiest to the touch. Its smooth, white powder is calming in its familiarity, and its smell often stirs memories of early childhood—perhaps exactly what the manufacturers banked on?

The mineral substance—comprised of magnesium, silicon and oxygen—has been marketed for decades as “talcum powder,” “baby powder,” and “body powder.” Unbeknownst to many consumers, it can be found in nearly every household and is a common component of countless other products including makeup, shampoos, lotions, and toothpaste.

It’s terrifying to think that the substance, touted as being gentle enough for babies and parents alike, could actually be the source of a hidden danger. Yet a growing number of studies conducted in recent years have indicated that the powder may be a carcinogen that raises the risk of developing ovarian cancer by as much as 33 percent when women routinely use it in their genital area.

Much of the danger for women may stem from inflammation that is caused when the powder travels into the genital tract, the studies have found. Frequent use over an extended period of time could double, or even triple, the risk of ovarian cancer, some studies have alleged. Statistics show the disease is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths in women with a five-year survival rate of 46 percent.  The median age of diagnosis is 63, and death, 70.

Roughly 20,000 American women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 14,400 women died from the disease in 2012, according to the latest figures available.

When pursuing these cases, a firm grasp of the science is critical, as is an understanding of the importance of tissue preservation and analysis. While a finding of talc in tissue analyzed is not required to prove a link between talc and ovarian cancer, absence of available tissue for testing may be dispositive, of course, a finding of talc residue in removed organ tissue draws a strong link for a jury.

Growing number of studies

As more and more attorneys look at these cases and consider getting involved, in part due to three successful plaintiffs’ verdicts received in the St. Louis cases, knowing about some of the research available to date may be helpful.

The American Cancer Society supports and discusses a number of research studies throughout the past few decades that have linked perineal talcum powder use to an elevated risk of ovarian cancer and it has stated that the exact magnitude of that risk continues to be studied. In addition, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, has gone so far as to classify use of the powder on genitals as being “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

This news has led some consumers to panic and speculate whether baby powder is safe to use on infants or male genitals. It’s important to note that no research at this point has formed any conclusive link between the powder and other forms of cancer in men and children.

Among the ongoing research related to the connection between talcum powder and ovarian cancer is a more recent study of African American women and their risk. Titled “Body Powder Use and Ovarian Cancer in African Americans,” the study was conducted by a team of researchers led by University of Virginia professor Joellen Schildkraut and claims to be “the largest EOC (epithelial ovarian cancer) case-control study in (African American) women to date.” The study, published in May 2016, found that African American women are at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer through talc use as opposed to women of other races. The study was supported by the National Cancer Institute, the Metropolitan Detroit Cancer Surveillance System, the National Institute of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Epidemiology Research Core and the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center, among other medical research institutions.

Researchers conducted the study because “Epidemiologic studies indicate increased ovarian cancer risk among women who use genital powder, but this has not been thoroughly investigated in African American women, a group with a high prevalence of use,” the study stated.

The researchers interviewed 584 black women who have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and compared their cases with 745 other black women without the disease. The women, ages 20 to 79, were selected from 11 Southern, Eastern, and Midwestern states. They each answered a series of questions that asked them to detail how often, if at all, they used talcum powder in their lifetimes, whether they ever used it on their genitals, their weight, the number of children they birthed, their menopausal status, whether they were a smoker, their family medical history, education, and other factors.

After examining the women’s responses, the researchers found that one in four of the women with ovarian cancer reported using talc on their genitals for more than 20 years. Other takeaways include:

  • An increased risk of more than 40 percent in black women who regularly used talcum powder on their genitals.
  • More than 62 percent of the test subjects who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer reported ever using talcum powder, compared to nearly 53 percent of women who were classified as controls.

The results are particularly troubling considering companies like Johnson & Johnson have allegedly targeted black women in marketing campaigns for years because of observations they purchase powder products at higher rates than women of other races.

Forty-four percent of black women reported using talcum powder in a 2015 Los Angeles study, compared to 30 percent of white women and 29 percent of Hispanic women, Reuters recently reported

Recent lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson exposed a plan orchestrated by the company in the 1990s in an attempt to increase sales “by targeting” black and Hispanic women, court documents show.

How did we get here?

Given the widespread popularity that talc has acquired, one might ask how its safety managed to go largely unchallenged for so many years. In fact, the mineral substance has a known history of containing asbestos, a proven carcinogen. Like talc, asbestos is a natural silicate mineral. Both substances can be found within close proximity and talc mining sites must take great care to ensure the purity of their product.

You may be thinking, how is this different than asbestos? Here’s why it is supposedly different: according to the FDA, it is “unacceptable” that cosmetic-grade talc contain any trace of asbestos. In 1973, federal laws required commercial talc products be asbestos free. However, there are few regulations and almost no enforcement ensuring cosmetic-grade talc is free of asbestos fibers. Some brands of talcum powder were found to contain asbestos when product samples from five different decades were tested. 

The idea of a possible link between talc and ovarian cancer is not a new one. Studies suggesting as much can be found as far back as the 1960s, according to the FDA. The risk prompted bans in cosmetic products in the European Union and restricted use in baby products in Canada. Yet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control continues to list no significant physical or chemical danger related to talc, other than possible effects on lungs if inhaled and redness and pain if made contact with eyes.

Companies like Johnson & Johnson have undoubtedly profited off of the misconceptions about talc’s safety. To what extent those mistaken beliefs were encouraged through decades of crafty marketing has been the subject of much debate in court.

Consumers are paying more attention after recent jury verdicts

Juries in three cases in St. Louis recently found that the possibility of a link was in fact an unfortunate reality for three women who attributed their illness to a decades-long use of Johnson & Johnson powder. The company is currently being sued by more than 1,200 women who’ve made similar allegations. The latest of the three verdicts marked the first time a jury found Imerys, a Johnson & Johnson talc supplier, liable in connection with the allegations, awarding the woman at the center of the case $70 million in damages on Oct. 27, 2016.

These three Missouri jury verdicts included middle aged women that used talcum powder to “stay fresh.” The women developed epithelial ovarian cancer.

All three juries heard evidence that suggested Johnson & Johnson had known of the risk its products posed to consumers since at least 1982, but that the company made conscious choices not to warn the public. Among the evidence was an internal letter dated September 1997 that was written by a medical consultant for the company. If the risks are denied, the letter stated, “... the talc industry will be perceived by the public like it perceives the cigarette industry: denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”

As expected, Johnson & Johnson has repeatedly denied any link between its products and ovarian cancer. It is expected to appeal the verdicts.

However, we are left to wonder if all juries will see Johnson & Johnson’s 1980 ad of a happy, young, African-American couple with their precious baby and the slogan, “Think of us as a lifetime friend of the family” as deceptive. Unfortunately, the tragic irony is that many women—similar to the one depicted in the ad—may suffer the fate of ovarian cancer, leaving a similar father and child behind, because she chose to use this “friend’s” product as advertised and recommended.

What’s next?

Cases are currently scheduled for trial in New Jersey and St. Louis later this year and in early 2017.

However, many women were not aware of the possible connection between their talcum powder usage and ovarian cancer until the publicity and news coverage from the recent verdicts, making many ripe for filing.

About the authors: 

Carmen S. Scott is a member attorney at Motley Rice LLC. She helps lead Motley Rice's mass tort pharmaceutical litigation by managing complex personal injury and economic recovery damages cases and currently represents clients in a variety of drug product matters in state and federal court.

Meghan Johnson Carter is an associate attorney at Motley Rice LLC. Meghan has litigated cases on behalf of victims of allegedly dangerous pharmaceutical drugs and defective medical devices. Meghan currently represents clients who have been harmed by pelvic mesh/sling products.