Baby powder is a common household product used by millions of women around the world as a feminine hygiene product. What many people don’t know is that talc-based products may be giving women ovarian cancer.
Products from Johnson & Johnson, including Shower to Shower or Johnson’s Baby Powder, have been linked to cancer. In fact, hundreds of millions of dollars have already been paid to victims and their families by Johnson & Johnson through court cases and settlements.
Baby powder is now a generic term used for talcum powder.
The basis of talcum powder is talc, a mineral mostly made up of the elements of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. In powder form, talc is absorbent and helps cut down on friction.
Although the use of talc dates back as far as ancient Egypt, the modern iteration of the now common household product dates back to the late 19th century.
Frederick Barnett Kilmer, the director of scientific affairs at Johnson & Johnson suggested sending customers a container of Italian talc to soothe their skin when irritated by another product. Customers were so pleased with the talc that the company began selling it. The first tins of Johnson’s Baby Powder were sold in 1893.
By the 20th century, the company’s talc-based powder rose in popularity. It was marketed with sanitary napkins to midwives and mothers after childbirth, according to the Huffington Post.1
For more than a century, women sprinkled the powder on their undergarments and genitals to reduce friction and absorb moisture. In fact, products like Shower to Shower were directly marketed for use on and around genitals to help with discomfort for years.
However, mounting evidence suggests that talcum-based products like Baby Powder are not as safe as they were originally thought to be.
When talking about whether talcum powder causes cancer, it is necessary to differentiate between talc with asbestos and talc that’s asbestos-free, according to the American Cancer Society.2 It is widely accepted that talc with asbestos can cause lung cancer if inhaled, but these days only asbestos-free talc is used in consumer products like Baby Powder.
Whether asbestos-free talcum powder causes cancer remains less clear.
In studies dating back as early as 1971, researchers noticed the presence of talc particles in ovarian cancer cells. Other studies noted that women who used talcum powder on a daily basis may have a slightly elevated risk of ovarian cancer. However, the American Cancer Society warns that these studies might be biased.
Additional studies have made similar connections between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. One 2016 study reported a 44 percent increased risk for a type of ovarian cancer among African American women who used the powder on their genitals.3
While dozens of studies have found an increased connection between the two, others did not notice an increased risk at all.
Organizations also offer conflicting information. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a specialized agency of the World Health Organization, warns that talc is “possibly” carcinogenic to humans.4 The National Cancer Institute, on the other hand, says “evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer.”5
This underscores the difficulty of actually determining the cause-and-effect relationship. That’s why thousands of women have filed lawsuits to let the courts decide.
The very first talcum powder lawsuit was filed by Diane Berg in 2009 after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer three years earlier. She said she used Johnson’s Baby Powder nearly every day for about 30 years before the diagnosis.
She claimed she was not aware of any dangers associated with the powder because there was nothing on the label. She sued Johnson & Johnson for negligence. In 2013, she turned down a $1.3 million settlement because she did not want to sign a confidentiality agreement.6
Since 2009, thousands of women have come forward to sue Johnson & Johnson for negligence and failing to warn of a potentially deadly link between its products and cancer.
In 2016, Gloria Ristesund was awarded $55 million in damages by a jury in St. Louis after she claimed to have used Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder for 35 years before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.7
“Internal documents from J & J show it knew of studies connecting talc use and ovarian cancer but, to this day, it continues to market it as safe — neglecting any warning,” a lawyer representing Ristesund said in a statement.8
Victims of ovarian cancer blaming Johnson & Johnson have won several high-profile cases over the years, adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars. Nevertheless, some cases were thrown out in 2017 after a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court found that plaintiffs must have a strong connection to the state where the lawsuit was filed.
Aside from classifications by an arm of the World Health Organization, no regulatory agency has taken steps to add warnings to the label of talc-based products.
But that does not mean they aren’t looking. The Office of Women’s Health, which is part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has agreed to fund a study to find out whether there is a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer.
Despite losing several trials, Johnson & Johnson continues to support the safety and use of its talc-based products.
“We are guided by the science, which supports the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder,” a spokesperson for the company has said over the years.9
Johnson & Johnson still faces more than 4,800 pending lawsuits from women who are extremely sick and looking for financial restitution. More talcum powder lawsuits are expected to continue to be filed every month.
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