This week a jury in St. Louis awarded $72 million to the family of Jackie Fox, an Alabama woman who died from ovarian cancer in October 2015.
Her family claimed that the cancer was caused by her regular use of Johnson & Johnson baby powder and other products containing talcum.
“It just became second nature, like brushing your teeth,” said Fox’s son, Marvin Salter. “It’s a household name.”
The jury, by a 10-2 vote, found Johnson & Johnson guilty of negligence, failing to warn consumers and conspiracy to conceal the risks of its products.
In a written statement the company, which is expected to appeal the verdict, said the jury’s decision “goes against decades of sound science proving the safety of talc as a cosmetic ingredient in multiple products.”
News of the decision was shared and passed around on Facebook thousands of times. Many women who commented sounded stunned and angry.
Did you know that talcum powder might cause cancer?
Why didn’t anyone tell us?
About 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
About 14,000 women are likely to die this year from the disease, which claims more lives than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. It strikes older women most often; about half the women are diagnosed are 63 or older.
The popular ovarian cancer treatment Doxil is made by Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen pharmaceutical company.
After the verdict in St. Louis the nonprofit Ovarian Cancer Research Fund issued a statement reiterating its position that a connection between the use of talcum powder and increased risk of ovarian cancer is inconclusive.
“In highly publicized cases like these, we must be careful as a women’s health organization to let science guide our reactions. The fact remains that the science is inconclusive about increased risk of ovarian cancer to women using talcum powder,” said a statement from the alliance’s president and CEO, Audra Moran.
But a possible connection between powder and cancer has been at the very least suspected since the early 1970s when British researchers analyzed 13 ovarian tumors and found talc particles in nearly all of them.
Over the years blogs about healthy living and natural foods have warned women against using talcum powder for feminine hygiene because of a possible cancer connection.
Last fall Salon published a report by the investigative watchdog group FairWarning that laid out a long-known connection between cancer and talcum powder.
The group reported that about 20 studies have found increased rates of ovarian cancer risk among women using talc for hygienic purposes. One 1999 study suggested that talc could be the cause of about 10 percent of ovarian cancer cases in the United States.
FairWarning questioned why women weren’t being told.
The St. Louis jury’s decision this week gave women 72 million reasons to learn more.
“We use this on children … and it had to be a good thing, right?” said 62-year-old ovarian cancer patient Deborah Giannecchini in the FairWarning investigation.
“This is an ugly disease. I sure would have appreciated being given the chance to say this is worth the risk or it isn’t.”
The mineral talc in powdered form absorbs moisture and cuts down on friction, which is why it’s popular for preventing rashes and keeping skin dry.
According to the American Cancer Society, talc in its natural form contains asbestos, a known carcinogen. But, the society says, all talcum products used in American households have been asbestos-free since the 1970s.
Lawsuits filed on behalf of ovarian cancer patients allege that the talc itself is the culprit.
So what is the cancer society’s opinion on powder and cancer? “Research in this area continues,” it says on its website.
The U.S. National Toxicology Program, whose members come from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Institutes of Health, has not “fully reviewed talc as a possible carcinogen,” according to the cancer society.
The concern has been that talcum powder might cause cancer if the powder particles — applied to the genital area, on sanitary napkins, diaphragms or condoms — travel through the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes to the ovaries.
The 1999 report that concluded talc use could be the cause of about 2,000 cases of ovarian cancers in the United States each year said 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.”
The findings of studies in both women and lab animals have been mixed, says the American Cancer Society. Some have reported a slightly increased risk, some none at all.
“For any individual woman, if there is an increased risk, the overall increase is likely to very be small,” says the cancer society.
But that’s not what a federal jury in Sioux Falls, S.D., said in October 2013. After a two-week trial it decided that Deane Berg’s use of Johnson & Johnson products containing talcum did, in fact, contribute to her ovarian cancer.
The jury also decided that the company should warn customers about the link between ovarian cancer and using talc-based body powder for feminine hygiene. Berg’s lawsuit claimed that she used talcum-based products for hygiene for about 30 years.
The jury’s message, however, seemed mixed. So mixed, in fact, that both sides claimed victory.
Berg’s lawyers, who accused Johnson & Johnson of a cover-up, called it a “great day for women all over the country.” Johnson & Johnson was “pleased.”
“It is important for consumers to know that the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence and independent peer-reviewed studies,” Johnson & Johnson said in a statement after the decision.
The jury agreed with Berg’s claim that the company had been negligent in its failure to warn consumers but did not award her any damages.
The jury also rejected Berg’s claim that Johnson & Johnson was “strictly liable” for that failure, a move that would have resulted in the company’s Shower to Shower body powder being labeled “defective” if it didn’t have a warning label.
The FairWarning report last year found that in the early 1980s, soon after the journal Cancer published the first study proving a link between ovarian cancer and using talcum powder in the genital area, a senior scientist from Johnson & Johnson visited the study’s lead author.
He “spent his time trying to convince me that talc use was a harmless habit,” gynecologist and Harvard Medical School professor Daniel Cramer said in a document filed in court, “while I spent my time trying to persuade him … that women should be advised of this potential risk.”
Lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson charge that the company should have replaced talc in its powders with cornstarch - equally soft on the skin but not linked to any health risks. The company does make some of its powders with cornstarch.
The Jackie Fox case decided this week was the first of about 1,200 ovarian cancer claims filed over the last two years against Johnson & Johnson and Imerys Talc America, according to FairWarning.
The bulk of the cases have been filed in state and federal courts in the St. Louis area. Several more trials are expected later this year.