The Controversy Spanning Decades – Johnson & Johnson, Talcum Powder and Ovarian Cancer – Part I

As juries all over the country issue multi-million dollar verdicts against the manufacturing giant J&J, the number of women who decide to take their personal tragedies to court grows exponentially

This is the first part of a two-article series on the controversy surrounding the adverse health effects of regular talcum-based products use. For the second part, click here.

When consumers’ trust is broken by a company’s deception

A consumer’s relationship with a product manufacturer is, to some extent, always based on trust. By buying a certain product, a consumer shows that he or she puts trust not only in the product manufacturer’s ability to deliver a certain standard of quality but also in its commitment to create a product that is safe for use or consumption. The stakes in this relationship are high; a consumer risks, at best, their money and satisfaction, and at worst, their health and safety. If a product doesn’t live up to the consumer’s expectations or, worse still, is proven to have adverse effects on their health, the manufacturer risks its reputation and possibly lawsuits for large monetary compensation for the damage caused. This trust that a consumer has in a manufacturer, is clearly seen in the beauty and personal care products industry. Many of these products are used by consumers daily for years on end or even throughout a lifetime. The average consumer cannot predict how a lifetime of use of a certain product will affect his or her health. They trust, however, that the manufacturer of the product has done all that reasonably lies in its power to ensure that the product will have no detrimental health effects. Consumers likewise trust that if any such effect is discovered, the manufacturer will act responsibly and withdraw the product from the market or at least warn the consumers of potential unwanted side-effects of its long-term use.

Sadly, time and again, some manufacturers and companies have proven that they are capable of showing, not only gross disrespect for the trust their customers have placed in them, but also a blatant disregard for their health. One of the most recent examples of this disconcerting phenomena is Johnson & Johnson, an American multinational goods manufacturing company, that is now facing more than 3,000 lawsuits in connection with the alleged failure on its part to warn customers of potential cancer risks associated with the use of talcum-based body powder. According to a number of verdicts that have already been delivered, Johnson & Johnson has had sufficient information to suspect that one of its flagship products can be carcinogenic to humans.  Johnson & Johnson did not take any action to inform the customers about the risk, and thus can be held liable for any damages linked to talc powder use.

What is talc powder? How is it used and by whom? What specific medical consequences can frequent use of this product have? If a person, or their family member, suspect that they might have faced adverse health effects due to the use of talc powder, can they be eligible for monetary compensation? What are the legal options in this case and how should the affected person proceed? This two-article series offers an in-depth analysis of the talcum powder controversy and explores answers to the above questions.

What is talcum powder and how is it used?

Talcum powder, often marketed under the name baby powder, is a refined and powdery form of a mineral called talc whose chemical composition includes magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. According to factsabouttalc.com, a website whose contents are curated by Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., talc is found in rock deposits and mined like any other mineral, to be then “milled to a powder, tested for particle size and confirmed for purity” before it is approved for consumer use. The same source attests that talc has been used for cosmetic purposes by ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and Native Americans. The American Cancer Society notes that talcum powder has moisture-absorbing qualities and is used to reduce friction, keep skin dry and prevent rashes, especially in connection with baby care to prevent diaper rash. However, talcum can also be found widely in body and facial cosmetics, as well as in other products designed for adults. Although in its natural form talc may contain asbestos, a substance known to cause lung cancers if inhaled, all talcum-based products that are approved for consumer use in the U.S. have been asbestos-free since the 1970s.

Talcum has also been widely used by women as a feminine hygiene product and applied to the genital area in the form of powder or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms, and condoms. Many women have been using talcum powder products, especially manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, for decades because it has always been marketed as a perfectly safe. For example, factsabouttalc.com mentioned above, highlights the fact that talc is an inert ingredient, which means that “it does not generate chemical reaction when ingested or used on the skin”. The website also asserts that “research, clinical evidence and 30 years of studies by medical experts around the world continue to support the safety of cosmetic talc.”

Nevertheless, if talcum powder is safe for use as a hygiene product, where do all the controversy and lawsuits come from?

Talcum powder use and ovarian cancer link

Several scientific studies and reports have found that talcum powder, when applied to a woman’s genital area, can travel to the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries.  Moreover, a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer was discovered as early as 1971, when research conducted by four gynecologists found talcum particles in more than 75% of ovarian tumors they investigated. Since then, many other studies have discovered corroborative evidence of the connection between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer. Most recently, a study conducted on a representative sample of 18,384 women has established that using genital powder increased the risk of developing a certain type of ovarian cancer by 20-30%.

Despite these findings, the exact mechanism of cancer formation due to the use of talcum powder has yet to be clearly understood. Therefore, scientists are very careful not to use sweeping generalizations such as “talcum powder causes cancer”. It is suspected, though, that talcum particles may cause inflammation if they find their way to the ovaries, and inflammation has been often linked to the development of certain types of cancer. In any case, the existing scientific evidence of the connection between talcum use and ovarian cancer was sufficient for organizations such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), to classify the use of talcum powder as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

The next article in the series will explore the questions of Johnson & Johnson’s awareness of the dangers that regular talc powder use presents. We will also consider a legal principle called defective product liability that can be a powerful tool against any company’s deceptive practices and misinformation regarding the risks related to products. The following article will also mention verdicts that have already been announced against Johnson & Johnson and offer practical advice for women who might have a claim against the company.