Women who routinely used talcum powder for feminine hygiene purposes throughout their lives are now discovering that their trusty talcum powder products may have put them at risk for ovarian cancer. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that regularly using talc-based products on the genital area can increase a woman’s chances of developing cancer of the ovaries by as much as 30%, a risk that many women could have avoided had they known that perineal talcum powder use can cause cancer. It is important that women who currently use or have used talcum powder products in the past understand the potential risk of cancer from talcum powder, how to reduce their risk and the ways in which they can pursue compensation for losses suffered as a result of their cancer diagnosis. In recent years, women who developed ovarian cancer after decades of using talcum powder products have begun suing the manufacturers of these products, including Johnson & Johnson, and are winning in court.
Talc is a natural mineral commonly used in combination with cornstarch in baby powder products. For decades, women all over the country regularly used talc-based powders to absorb moisture, reduce odors and prevent skin irritation from chafing, assuming that the talc was harmless. However, several studies analyzing the safety of talc-based powders have established a link between talc and inflammation in normal cells possibly leading to cancer. One possible reason for this link is that talc is a naturally occurring mineral, mined from the earth, that may contain small amounts of asbestos, a group of minerals made up of thin, needle-like fibers and a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance). Because talc is often found near asbestos in the earth, the mineral can easily become contaminated by asbestos particles during the mining process, which can increase the risk of mesothelioma, ovarian cancer and lung cancer among people who use talc-based products. Talc particles have also been shown to travel through the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes to the ovaries when applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, condoms or diaphragms, which can cause inflammation in the ovaries.
So far, the most convincing research linking perineal talcum powder use to an elevated risk of ovarian cancer comes from two case-control studies from 2016, in which researchers compared women who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and women who did not have cancer and factored in their use of talcum powder. In the first study, researchers compared 584 African-American women with ovarian cancer to 745 women without ovarian cancer and found that the women who had used talc anywhere on their body, on the genital area or elsewhere, were significantly more likely to have been diagnosed with epithelial ovarian cancer. In the second study, which compared 2,041 women living in New Hampshire and Massachusetts who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 1,578 women of the same age and geographic location who did not have cancer, women who used talc in the genital area were, again, significantly more likely to have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. More recently, a study presented at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology identified specific gene mutations in the cancer cells of ovarian tumors that were triggered by talc particles.
Even worse than research showing that J&J talcum powder products have the potential to cause cancer is the fact that a 2018 investigation into Johnson & Johnson’s company memos, confidential documents and internal reports dating back decades revealed that J&J knew as early as 1971 that traces of asbestos had been found in J&J Baby Powder products made with talc. And rather than warn the women who used Johnson’s talcum powder on a daily basis and trusted that the product was safe and unlikely to cause them harm, the pharmaceutical company claimed that the amount of asbestos found in the powders was too small to be any cause for concern and lobbied the FDA to agree with its assessment. “Had J&J acted responsibly and removed Johnson’s Baby Powder from the market in the 1970s, they would have saved the lives of thousands of women who have died needlessly of ovarian cancer,” said an attorney representing plaintiffs in the talcum powder cancer cases that have been centralized in New Jersey.
As a result of the potential link between the use of Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products and cancer, the pharmaceutical giant faces at least 15,500 lawsuits filed by consumers who used Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower-to-Shower Body Powder products for years and were subsequently diagnosed with mesothelioma or ovarian cancer. Last summer, a Missouri circuit court ordered J&J to pay $4.69 billion to 22 women and their families who claimed that their use of J&J talcum powder products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. J&J suffered another major defeat this past June, when a New York jury delivered a $325 million verdict in a lawsuit filed by Donna Olson and her husband, who claimed that the company’s talcum powder contained asbestos and caused her to develop mesothelioma. According to the American Cancer Society, there are approximately 22,240 new ovarian cancer diagnoses and 14,070 ovarian cancer deaths in the United States every year. And while the scientific and medical communities have not reached a definitive decision about whether the use of talc causes cancer, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classifies the genital use of talcum powder products as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”