Johnson & Johnson: $100m talc-cancer payout
The family of a woman whose death from ovarian cancer was linked to her use of Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based Baby Powder and Shower to Shower is awarded $100 million in damages by a Missouri state jury in the US.
Please say it isn’t so. Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder – that soothing white talc probably hundreds of thousands of us have used for decades and on our babies too – causes cancer?
We can’t dismiss completely that the perineal use of talcum powder increases the risk of ovarian cancer.
Professor Bernard Stewart
Members of the jury in the case of Alabama woman Jacqueline Fox obviously think so. They ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay Fox’s family $US72 million in actual and punitive damages after she died of ovarian cancer. It was reported that a pathologist found her ovaries were inflamed from talc which then turned into cancer. Aged 62, Fox had used Johnson & Johnson powder products for 35 years, applying them in her genital area.
Johnson & Johnson has maintained its talcum powder products are safe to use. Photo: supplied
So should you stop using it?
If you are someone who wants to minimise or eliminate all possible risks of cancer from your life, the answer is yes. Because the highest authority available to us – the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer – classifies talc-based body powder as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” when it’s used around the perineum – the nether region stretching from the vagina to the anus.
In other words, the international expert working group convened by the IARC to examine the evidence for a link between talcum powder and cancer has concluded that there possibly is one. That’s if we’re talking about the way body powder is most frequently applied, that is, by dusting around the vagina. Most commonly, women start using it around the age of 15, and for an unknown number like Fox it becomes a daily habit of a lifetime.
“On the one hand we can’t dismiss completely that the perineal use of talcum powder increases the risk of ovarian cancer,” said Professor Bernard Stewart, a world authority on environmental cancer risks who advises both the IARC and Cancer Council Australia.
“On the other hand all of the studies are not conclusive. Some studies showed an association and some did not,” he says. And of the ones that showed an association, some showed an adverse one: that the more you used, the lower the risk, and vice versa – “which is not what you would expect”.
So the evidence isn’t strong enough to warrant action by health authorities, such warnings against use or on labels, says Professor Stewart.
So back to the question: what is a woman to do?
The professor says it’s “fair enough” to stop using talc: “The evidence is enough to justify anxiety in an individual woman, and if an individual woman wants to stop using talc in this way I have absolutely no criticism of that”.
But he also advises the evidence isn’t strong enough to justify any of us losing sleep over somehow putting ourselves at risk in the past. And he says a jury determination in a court case is “the last place one goes for objective medico-scientific assessment”.
While it is “understandable at a human level” that a jury might be outraged by the notion that someone might get cancer by the seemingly innocuous use of talcum powder, it “provides no scientific insight”.
“Decades of science” back the safety of talc
Johnson & Johnson disputes the IARC’s conclusion. It said in a statement: “The recent US verdict goes against decades of sound science proving the safety of talc as a cosmetic ingredient in multiple products, and while we sympathise with the family of the plaintiff, we strongly disagree with the outcome.”
A Sydney-based spokesperson for the American multinational told Fairfax Media: “Johnson & Johnson relies on the greater body of evidence, and the greater body of evidence suggests there is really insufficient science to make that link.
“Do we believe that the product continues to be safe? Very much so.”
The NSW Cancer Council says on its website: “Further research is needed to determine whether and how talcum powder might increase the risk of ovarian cancer.”
(There’s a separate kind of naturally-occurring mineral talc that contains asbestos and definitely causes cancer. Asbestos may have been present in some body talcs before the mid 1970s, but the industry decided after a flurry of adverse publicity back then to market talc with no asbestos, the IARC said).
The IARC considered 20 studies to evaluate the risk of ovarian cancer from using body powder. It focused on eight studies it deemed “more informative” because they were population-based (that is, not focused on particular groups of people), of reasonable size, with acceptable participation rates and allowed control for unidentified factors which might confound the results.