You have likely heard about the recent lawsuit in Missouri, where Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $72 million in damages to the family of a woman who died from ovarian cancer. The cancer was deemed the result of her lifelong use of the company’s baby powder for feminine hygiene. This legal case has sparked much discussion on the links between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. The Medical Station discusses the case and its importance, and explores existing scientific evidence on the relationship between talc and ovarian cancer.
The Johnson & Johnson Law Suit
The Fox family, as part of a larger suit against the company, brought claims against Johnson & Johnson that despite knowing about the carcinogenicity of talcum powder, the company continued to sell the product without sufficient warnings or appropriate labels. Johnson & Johnson was found liable for fraud, negligence, and conspiracy. While offering sympathy for the Fox family, Johnson & Johnson maintained the safety of their products. A spokesperson from Johnson & Johnson, stated that: "We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers, and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial. We sympathize with the plaintiff's family but firmly believe the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence".
It is predicted that Johnson & Johnson will be appealing the verdict. There are, however, over 1,200 other lawsuits being filed against the company by American customers.
What is Talcum Powder?
For decades, woman have applied talcum powders to their genitals, undergarments, and sanitary pads in an effort to combat vaginal sweating and odours by keeping the groin area comfortable and dry. One of the main ingredients in talcum powder is talc. Talc is a naturally occurring mineral that primarily consists of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. Known for absorbing moisture, preventing caking, and reducing friction, talc is widely used in cosmetics and personal hygiene products. Naturally occurring talc has been found to contain asbestos, a known carcinogen, however, since the 1970s all talcum products in North America and Europe have been asbestos free.
Links between Talcum Powder & Ovarian Cancer
Experts around the globe are divided when it comes to the relationship, if any, between talcum powder and cancer. Studies conducted in lab animals and humans have typically had mixed results looking at asbestos-free talc and ovarian cancer. James Gallagher, health editor for BBC discusses the inconclusive evidence from the research. He cites multiple studies and study reviews demonstrating an increased risk of ovarian cancer by one third in talc using women as well as discussing a large American study where no link was found.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, cites studies of both lab animals and humans in determining that the application of talc to the genitals is "possibly carcinogenic to humans". Some, however, have cast doubt on the reliability of these human studies due to the bias in recalling talcum powder use.
The Canadian Cancer Society lists using talc powder on genitals as a possible risk factor for ovarian cancer. Dr. Steven Narod, a senior scientist at Women's College Research Institute and a world leader in breast and ovarian cancer genetics, says that it has been known for many years that talc is linked to ovarian cancer. He explains that while there is a proven increase, the risk still remains low. In Canada 10 of 1000 women can expect to get ovarian cancer; when looking at women who apply talc regularly to their genitals, this number increases to 12 of 1000. While the increase in individual risk may be small, at a population level, this relationship can have serious implications. Dr. Narod estimates that in Ontario, talc use may account for 3-4% of the cases of ovarian cancer.
The Medical Station Weighs In
It seems clear that there is enough contradicting evidence to at least cast a shadow of doubt on the safety of talcum powder use. With evidence dating back to the 1980’s, it could be argued that companies selling talc containing products (products which are commonly used for feminine hygiene) have a responsibility to share this potential risk with consumers.
Until there is more conclusive research, The Medical Station suggests airing on the side of caution when it comes to using talc-based powders for feminine hygiene. Further, there is evidence suggesting that the use of talcum powders for feminine hygiene is not only unnecessary, but may have other negative health implications such as increased risk of inflammation and infection.