Following a three-week-long trial in the U.S., a jury in Missouri has ordered that pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson pay out a staggering $72 million to the family of a woman who died last year of ovarian cancer, a death the family blames on the heath care giant’s talcum powder.
According to BBC News, they claim that the woman in question, 62-year-old Jackie Fox from Birmingham, Alabama, applied J&J’s talc products for decades but was not made aware of the potential health risks they carried, due to a failure on the company’s behalf to alert users.
While the jury may have made its verdict, it’s doubtful that the battle is won as J&J will likely appeal. That said, this isn’t the only case that the company is facing: a further 1,200 lawsuits are currently pending across the country, and it’s anticipated that the outcome of this trial will likely spur thousands more.
But is there any plausibility behind these claims? The fears over talc stem from the fact that this mineral is naturally found in spots across Earth that also contain asbestos, a known carcinogen. It is for that reason that talc used for cosmetic purposes, such as in makeup or to produce baby powder, must be free of asbestos, a requirement that’s been in place since the ‘70s.
Yet because of its chemical similarity to asbestos, talc has continually been scrutinized as a possible cancer-causing agent. Namely, multiple studies over the years have drawn associations with genital application of talcum powder and ovarian cancer. While some research has concluded that talc use may modestly increase the risk of this particular type of cancer, the link remains a controversial one. Poor study design is often raised, with selection bias blamed for helping tip the scales to significance.
In addition, biological evidence to support this link is lacking as a mechanism of carcinogenicity has yet to be identified, and there appears to be no dose response. If talc was indeed a carcinogen, greater exposure would be expected to cause a greater risk of developing cancer, but that has not been observed with its use.
Furthermore, additional questions arise when route of exposure is considered. More intrusive products, such as condoms and diaphragms, which are coated with talc, have not been associated with a risk of ovarian cancer. “Considering talc a carcinogen lacks convincing scientific documentation,” one study concludes.