Talcum Powder Taken to Task

A seemingly innocuous product that many of us have in our homes has been implicated in claims that its main ingredient causes cancer. First sold in the 1890s, Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder absorbs excess moisture and is commonly used to ease diaper rash and in feminine hygiene. Made of 99.8 percent talc (the remainder is a mix of fragrant oils that gives it that recognizable clean scent), the baby powder is now the subject of over 1,000 lawsuits alleging that Johnson & Johnson knew of talc’s role in ovarian cancer and failed to warn consumers. At least three plaintiffs have won their cases against Johnson & Johnson so far, though the company plans to appeal.

So, what’s going on? Talc is a naturally occurring soft mineral composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen. It is mined from above-ground deposits in more than a dozen countries. China is the biggest source and is the supplier to Johnson & Johnson. Since the early twentieth century, Johnson & Johnson has been marketing its baby powder to women to use on themselves, achieving a 70 percent rate of adult use by the mid-1980s. Generations of women have employed it for that “fresh and clean feeling.”

There have been many studies examining whether there is a link between long-term use of talcum powder and ovarian cancer based on the possibility that the powder particles applied to the perineal area could travel to the ovary. Findings have been mixed. A 1971 British study was the first to suggest that talcum powder could pose a risk of ovarian cancer after finding talc particles “deeply embedded” in ten of 13 ovarian tumors analyzed. A 1982 study by a Boston epidemiologist showed the first statistical link between genital talc use and ovarian cancer (and was brought to the attention of Johnson & Johnson). Since then, an additional 20 epidemiological studies have found that long-term perineal talc use increases the risk of ovarian cancer by about 33 percent. These studies have also connected talc use with increased odds for developing ovarian cancer: 1 in 53 women for those that use talc versus 1 in 70 for those that don’t.

If you use Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder in your genital region, you should know that some studies have connected long-term use of talc (its main ingredient) to increased risk of ovarian cancer. There is no such evidence that cornstarch presents any risks and has been suggested by the American Cancer Society since 1999 as an alternative to those women who want to use genital powder. There are several manufacturers that offer baby powder made of cornstarch only, including J&J. For your peace of mind, you may want to consider making a switch.

Other studies have found no association. The American Cancer Society says “it is not clear if consumer products containing talcum powder increase cancer risk … although there is some suggestion of a possible increase in ovarian cancer risk.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, classifies talc as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." A study published earlier this year found that "African-American women who reported regular use of body powder were at greater risk for ovarian cancer compared to their peers who didn’t use talc.” This is especially troubling given evidence that even as Johnson & Johnson “acknowledged concerns in the health community, it considered increasing its marketing efforts to black and Hispanic women, who were already buying the product in high numbers.”

Baby powder is not subject to review or approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it is classified as a cosmetic. However, the FDA does require cosmetics to be properly labeled and safe for consumer use under labeled or customary conditions of use. The label on Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder does advise that it is meant for external use only, but topical application to the genitals doesn’t mean it couldn’t travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovaries.

Consumer safety is important, and the health concerns surrounding the use of talcum powder are growing. At a minimum, Johnson & Johnson has a responsibility to warn women of the possible health risks of using talcum powder in the genital area. If you have any questions about this topic, talk to the product liability attorneys at Stabinski Law As one of South Florida's most respected and oldest law firms, we have helped many people sort out their legal rights, responsibilities, and remedies for over 45 years. If you wish to learn more about how our firm can be of assistance to you, we encourage you to contact us today by calling 305-643-3100 or filling out a free case evaluation form.

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