Is a Common Household Product Causing Ovarian Cancer? And did the Manufacturer Cover it up?

Johnson's Baby Talcum Powder

Talcum powder is the main ingredient in baby powder, as it is an extremely soft mineral that is easily crushed into powder, which is used to absorb moisture.

The first known lawsuit regarding talcum powder was filed by Diane Berg in 2009. In 2006 Berg was diagnosed with ovarian cancer after decades of using the powder.  She figured it was harmless since there were no warning labels on the product, especially regarding cancer being a result of long-term exposure. Berg later filed suit against Johnson & Johnson for gross negligence and fraud.

After several years of prolonged litigation, Berg was offered $1.3 million to settle the case outside of court. After learning that the settlement offer included a confidentiality agreement, she turned it down. In the end, after a jury trial, Berg did not receive any money from J&J, but the jury did agree that there was an association between the use of talcum powder and ovarian cancer.

Just over the last year, jury trials have awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to several women suing Johnson & Johnson over allegations that the baby powder products cause cancer. Over 3,000 lawsuits have been filed against the company in recent years as these possible cancerous side effects have become widespread.

A St. Louis, Missouri jury rendered a verdict of $110.5 million against Johnson & Johnson in favor of Lois Slemp, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 5 years ago. The cancer eventually spread to her liver. She argued to the Court that her illness was caused by her use of the Johnson & Johnson baby powder for over 40 years. The jury agreed.

In October 2016, Deborah Giannecchini was awarded $70 million in a jury trial after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012 after years of use of Johnson & Johnson baby powder.

In May 2016, a jury awarded $55 million to Gloria Ristesund after she also developed ovarian cancer after similar use of the baby powder, as well as Johnson & Johnson’s “Shower to Shower Powder.” After a hysterectomy and other surgeries related to the cancer, she was awarded $5 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.

Jacqueline Fox’s estate won $72 million in February 2016 after a pathologist found that her ovaries became inflamed and cancerous from use of the talcum powder. Investigation during this case found internal memos from Johnson & Johnson suggesting that company executives knew of the product risks, as well as a memo from a company medical consultant comparing the use of the powder to smoking. Ms. Fox died in 2015, prior to the trial.

Allegations of Racial Targeting

The most recent trial, currently underway in Missouri between the families of three deceased talcum powder users and Johnson & Johnson, has brought up allegations that J&J intentionally targeted African-American woman for sales. The attorneys for the deceased women, Shawn Blaes, Angela Hershman, and Eron Evans, quoted research stating that African-American women have an increased likelihood of developing ovarian cancer when also using talc powder on their genitals.

The attorneys pointed to corporate documents that show when sales of their talcum products decreased, the company looked to boost sales and marketing of the product to African-American women.

The Plaintiffs’ side also argued that the lack of any sort of warning label was the most egregious negligent act of the company. Although the US Food and Drug Administration has not labeled the product as needing warning, the attorneys have argued that J&J and its supplier of the talc powder, Imerys Talc America, Inc., had coordinated to influence the safety regulation of the powder. (For more on this current trial, read about it at Law

Establishing a Cause

Interestingly, these large verdicts were not decided because of a direct link between talcum powder and cancer, since scientific research has not yet established a concrete causal relationship between the two. According to the International Journal of Gynecological Cancer, a female’s use of the powder in the genital area raises the risk of ovarian cancer by 30 to 60 percent. However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer had a more measured take, stating that the use of talcum powder on genitals could be “possibly carcinogenic.”

The difficulty in establishing causation between talcum powder and ovarian cancer comes due to a lack of proper scientific research on the topic. Studies have found correlations between the two, but not yet a direct link of causation. Other complications in research have arisen too, such as the fact that cosmetic use of talc powder is self-reported in most current research questionnaires, and self-reported statistics are often found to be unreliable. Lastly, users of talc powder all use different amounts of the powder, and different methods of application (spraying it versus sprinkling it). These inconsistencies do not measure up to the strict requirements of most scientific research protocols.

Lacking scientific proof of causation, these enormous rulings happened for a different reason: as punitive measures against Johnson and Johnson for concealing their internal communications and studies showing a possible connection. This research was first alluded to in the internal memos found during Jacqueline Fox’s lawsuit. Despite the fact that the possible connection was discussed inside the company, no warning labels were ever issued for the product. In Lois Slemp’s case, $105 million of her total $110.5 million jury verdict was designed as punishment to the company for concealing the information.

Jurors in Slemp’s trial stated as such. Nancy Kinney, said that “I felt that J&J was withholding information about its products that was vital to women – vital to women like me.” Kinney also said that the punitive figure of $105 million was based on a formula that included the amount of years since the International Agency for Research on Cancer determined talc was a “possible carcinogen,” in 2006.

Another juror, Lindsay Polley, told that the science increasingly points toward talc being a cancer risk factor. She stated “The J&J documents acknowledge that. If we could, we would make them put on a warning label.” A third juror, Jeremy King, described the J&J documents as “mindblowing.”

Thousands of similar lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson are still being litigated before the Courts. As awareness spreads through the nation about the possible cancerous effects of using these products, it is more important than ever to make sure you protect your rights and interests if you or a loved one has also been affected. If you have any questions, give us a call or fill out our information questionnaire here.