WHEELING – Talcum powder is back in the news following a May 2 verdict against Johnson & Johnson, in which it was ordered to pay $55 million to a woman who contracted ovarian cancer after years of her using Johnson’s Baby Powder for feminine hygiene.
This verdict comes on the heels of a $72 million verdict this past February against Johnson & Johnson for the wrongful death of another woman who died of ovarian cancer.
In both instances, the vast majority of these awards constituted punitive damages against Johnson & Johnson for promoting talcum powder as a feminine hygiene product without ever warning about the cancer risks for talcum powder that companies like Johnson & Johnson have known about for decades.
As far back as 1971, British researchers found talc particles “deeply embedded’’ in ovarian tumors when examined microscopically. In 1982, a gynecologist and Harvard Medical School professor, Dr. Daniel Cramer, demonstrated a statistically significant link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder use for perineal dusting. In 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified cosmetic, perineal talc application as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
To date, approximately 20 epidemiological studies, including 16 case-controlled studies have found increased rates of ovarian cancer for women who reported using talc as a feminine hygiene product. And most recently, a new study has found a 33 percent higher rate of ovarian cancer among women who used talc for feminine hygiene.
Unfortunately, Johnson & Johnson knew all about the risk of getting cancer from its Baby Powder and Shower To Shower products for decades. But armed with this knowledge, instead of doing the right thing and warning its customers, Johnson & Johnson actually increased its marketing efforts for these products, particularly to black and Hispanic women, who were among its most loyal consumers.
One of the jury foreman, Krista Smith, commented after the first verdict that Johnson & Johnson’s internal documents provided the most incriminating evidence saying, “It was really clear they were hiding something.”
I have written before about the potential harm from talcum powder from cross-contamination with asbestos fibers, which are often mined in close proximity from adjacent seams, as a result of companies sourcing talc from countries like China and Pakistan that have very few regulations to prevent cross-contamination. Interestingly, Johnson & Johnson’s biggest source of talc comes from the southern province of Guangxi, China.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 22,280 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the United States alone, and approximately 14,240 will die, this year. About one woman in 70 will develop ovarian cancer this year, but studies show that regular talc use puts your odds at approximately one in 50.
Prior to these recent verdicts, concerns about the risks of talc were practically unknown to the general public. But Johnson & Johnson knew. Nevertheless, it continued to promote its Baby and Shower to Shower powders as quintessentially wholesome products for people who wanted to “feel cool, smooth and dry.”
To date, health advocates prior calls for warnings against using talc products for genital hygiene have gone unheeded. As far back as 1999 researchers were astutely pointing out that: “balanced against what are primarily aesthetic reasons for using talc in genital hygiene, the risk benefit decision is not complex. Appropriate warnings should be provided to women about the potential risks of regular use of talc in the genital area.”
Unfortunately, Johnson & Johnson and other distributors chose to ignore and conceal the dangerous truth about their products. As a tragic result, tens of thousands of women are now likely to pay the price for these companies’ conscious disregard of these known safety hazards.
Zatezalo is an attorney for Bordas & Bordas in Wheeling.