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Can Talcum Powder Cause Cancer?

The discussion over whether or not talcum powder is dangerous has reached an all-time high this year, much in part due to the extraordinary jury ruling in St. Louis in February. The jury found Johnson & Johnson liable for causing a woman to develop and ultimately die from, ovarian cancer, due to prolonged use of their baby powder. The family of the deceased, Jackie Fox, was awarded a handsome sum of $72 million in damages. This has led many people to ask — is talcum powder truly unsafe? There seems to be a wide variety of opinions regarding this.

Dr. Shelley Tworoger, who is an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard, says, “There is no way we’re ever going to know for certain that any exposure is necessarily causal to a disease.” She continues, “We might be 99 percent sure, but there’s usually no way to guarantee that what you see is actually the truth.”

Talc is a naturally occurring mineral and is mainly made up of magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen. In its natural form, it can sometimes contain asbestos. However, since the 1970s, all talcum products sold in the United States have been asbestos free. Talc is also used in many beauty and makeup products to absorb moisture, improve the texture of a product, increase opaqueness, and so on. It can also be found in certain foods, including rice, and in chewing gum.

The American Cancer Society claims that research looking at a possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer is mixed. Some reports state that there is only a slight increase in the risk of forming ovarian cancer, however, Johnson & Johnson stated that “decades of sound science” prove that talc is actually completely safe to use.

There has also been a strong emphasis on the fact that this extraordinary ruling and reward does not, and should not, serve as a guaranteed outcome for other future plaintiffs. Jackie Fox and her family claimed that she used Johnson & Johnson baby powder every day for over 35 years. Still, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has only classified talcum powder as possibly carcinogenic to humans when used in the genital area.

Talc litigation actually began several years ago in 2009 when Deane Berg, of South Dakota, claimed her ovarian cancer was also caused by decades of powder use, just as Fox alleged. Berg was diagnosed in 2006, and three doctors who analyzed her cancer tissue found talc while using a scanning electron microscope. They then determined that the powder was indeed the cause. One of the doctors claimed that he had been studying the connection between talc and cancer for 30 years, and told jurors that he believes talc is responsible in 10,000 cases of ovarian cancer each year.

The two cases differ because the Sioux Falls jury did not award Berg damages. They also did not agree that Johnson & Johnson products are defective without a warning label. Many believe that this case went mostly unnoticed because of the lack of damages rewarded.

In May of this year, another multimillion-dollar award was given to a cancer survivor, this time for $55 million.

A lot of studies have been done linking talc use with ovarian cancer. One of the most recent studies finds a 44 percent increased risk for “invasive epithelial ovarian cancer” in African- American women who use the powder.

Of course, Johnson & Johnson claims that its powder is safe. It plans on appealing the two multimillion-dollar awards.