The battleground in the war between ovarian cancer victims claiming talcum powder makers, mainly Johnson & Johnson Co., caused their disease has shifted from court filings to the courtroom.
A St. Louis jury last month awarded $72 million to the family of Jacqueline Fox, who died of ovarian cancer. She’d been a lifelong user of J&J talc products for feminine hygiene. The jury found the company liable for negligence and conspiracy for failing to warn consumers there might be a link to ovarian cancer.
Lawyers for the deceased woman said they expect three more trials before the end of the year. There are 1,000 such cases filed in Missouri and 100 in New Jersey, according to a Reuters news story. In 2013, a federal jury in South Dakota found for the plaintiff in a similar case but didn’t award damages. The jury did not think the product was defective without a warning label, a Rapid City, South Dakota, newspaper reported.
For now, J&J appears to be the primary target of the litigation. Its baby powder products and Shower to Shower powder, which it no longer owns, are possible cancer-causing culprits, plaintiffs’ attorneys say.
The scientific reports give mixed verdicts to whether talc – which bears some similarities with asbestos – poses a significant cancer risk. The National Institutes for Health published reports indicating further research is needed, at the very least. A different study posted on the NIH website funded in part by the defense-oriented law firm Crowell and Moring concluded that “[I]n summary, these data collectively do not indicate that cosmetic talc causes ovarian cancer.”
There are other routes to the upper reproductive tract in addition to feminine hygiene uses. Talcum powder is also used in condom-manufacturing and for storing diaphragms.
Harvard University’s Dr. Larry Cramer provides research that talc is strongly associated with the disease. He reports findings that talc is a contributing factor in 10,000 ovarian cases a year, according to news accounts. The constant use causes it to move into the upper reproductive tract.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 20,000 women a year in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The CDC does not list talcum powder as a risk factor for ovarian cancer. Plaintiffs might find conditional support from a white paper published by a study group for the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
“There is limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of perineal use of talc- based body powder,” an IARC document says. The case-controlled studies found a “modest but unusually consistent, excess in risk” though there could be a number of confusing variables contributing to the result. The type of exposure also was not controlled, the report said. That means some people might have used talc containing quartz and other carcinogens, the IARC paper says.
However, “the researchers concluded that the epidemiological studies taken together provide limited evidence of an association between perineal use of talc-based body powder and an increased risk for ovarian cancer.”
For its part, J&J remains adamant its powder products are quite safe.
“At Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., our confidence in using talc is based on a long history of safe use and more than 30 years of research by independent researchers, scientific review boards and global regulatory authorities. Various agencies and governmental bodies have examined whether talc is a carcinogen, and none have concluded that it is,” the company said in a published statement.
As for other talc-related health problems, scientists now point to talcum powder as a potential factor in endometrial cancer. “Future studies addressing the association between talcum powder use and endometrial cancer risk may provide further evidence for the role of inflammation in endometrial cancer,” a 2010 NIH paper said. That paper was funded by the government and the Republic of Cyprus.
For now, the talcum-cancer trials are not enough of a threat to make it worth including in J&J’s financial reports. But, the health products company is facing a major legal onslaught on a different front that are included in SEC filings.
On March 17, a jury awarded $497.6 million verdict, finding that allegedly defective Pinnacle hip prosthetics manufactured by its DePuy Orthopaedics Inc. unit caused severe problems for five patients, according to the news.
For more information on the talcum powder studies see:
- The articles “Perineal use of talcum powder and endometrial cancer risk” and “Perineal Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer: A Critical Review,” published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
- A monograph about talc powder from The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
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