Talcum Powder And Cancer Linked In $72 Million Johnson & Johnson Jury Award

Could there be a link between talcum powder and cancer? It depends on whether you choose to believe the scientific evidence or the recent actions of a jury in the state of Missouri, which this past week awarded $72 million in damages to the family of a woman who claimed her ovarian cancer was caused by the use of Johnson & Johnson's baby powder.

The plaintiff in question, Jackie Fox, died in 2015 of ovarian cancer at the age of 62. Her case was part of a filing in the St. Louis Circuit court involving more than 50 other individuals seeking compensation for the same reason: the assertion that decades of talcum powder use had lead to various types of cancer. The Fox case is merely the tip of the iceberg, as over 1,000 similar legal actions are currently waiting to be resolved across the country.

It seems at first absurd to suggest that talc – which is composed of such innocuous elements as silicon, hydrogen, oxygen, and magnesium – would be capable of causing cancer in human beings. An examination of the evidence, however reveals a more nuanced understanding of how talc interacts with the body.

Several studies focusing on whether talcum powder was able to cause cancer have had mixed results, with some lab studies demonstrating evidence that talcum exposure was linked to tumor formation in animals, and others showing no such connection. Human studies are equally non-conclusive when taken together: while slight increases in cancer risk have been observed in patient populations who reported past use of talcum powder, the design of these studies relied on the memories of participants stretching back over a decade or more. These results have been contradicted by other investigations that controlled for memory bias and whichfound zero connection between the disease and talcum powder use.

Even still, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified the genital application of talcum powder (such as what could cause ovarian cancer) as 'possibly carcinogenic to humans,' with the caveat that, in general, talc in the absence of asbestos (a contaminant not seen in American talc for over 40 years) is 'not classifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans.' Other cancer organizations stress that ovarian cancer is a rare disease, and that environmental and genetic factors undoubtedly play a larger role than talc as a risk factor. Ovacome, a leading European cancer charity, states that while in the worst case studies a 30 percent increase in the chance of ovarian cancer was demonstrated, alcohol and cigarettes are known to increase the risk of cancer by as much as 30 times, providing a stark contrast in risk factors.

Sound confusing? The conflicting evidence, no matter how thin it might be, was certainly enough to convince a Missouri jury that Johnson & Johnson were hiding something, especially after it was revealed that in a 1997 internal memo a medical consultant at the company wrote "anybody who denies (the) risks" between "hygienic" talc use and ovarian cancer will be publicly perceived in the same light as those who denied a link between smoking cigarettes and cancer: "denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary." The company also has a history of removing certain chemicals, such as formaldehyde, from commonly-used products after past pressure from consumer safety groups.

It seems almost certain that the $72 million verdict will be reduced on appeal, especially given past action by appellate courts in similar damage cases. However, the sheer ubiquity of talcum powder – and the rising number of lawsuits faced by Johnson & Johnson – indicates that the murky science surrounding this cancer claim precedent could have a huge impact on the company moving forward.