Is baby powder dangerous?​

Thousands of people in the U.S. have filed lawsuits claiming baby powder gave them cancer, but the scientific community is still unsure.

Posted: Apr 12, 2018 12:20 PM
Updated: Apr 12, 2018 12:36 PM

With yet another eye-popping talcum powder verdict against Johnson & Johnson, the healthcare product giant is making the headlines. I last wrote about the issue in 2016, in a column (which appears below this update) about a ruling against Johnson & Johnson related to a claim that the powder caused ovarian cancer.

But in this new verdict, reached last week, a New Jersey jury agreed with a man suffering from mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer, that the baby powder he'd used for decades was to blame. The jury awarded him $30 million in compensatory damages and his wife $7 million in damages.

Americans' use of talcum powder has dropped off precipitously since the early 1980s, and the continuing legal battles over its links to cancer will ensure that trend continues. Johnson & Johnson is offering a cornstarch alternative, while vigorously attempting to defend itself from an onslaught of lawsuits, with few successes. Johnson & Johnson vehemently denies that its powder has anything to do with cancer.

The naturally occurring mineral compounds we call talc can sometimes be contaminated with asbestos, another group of minerals that are undisputed carcinogens. American talc products have had no detectible asbestos in testing for many decades now, but the scientific controversy over whether "pure" forms of talc can kick off cancers of the ovaries and lungs continues.

Most of the research is of a sometimes frustrating variety of "epidemiological" work where medical researchers try to compare similar groups of people who have just one important difference, like daily baby powder use, or working in a talc mine.

It's not ethical or even technically feasible to perform more direct forms of research on humans about the effects of a suspected carcinogen. Taiwanese researchers recently tabulated data from 14 such studies that looked at talc miners, finding a link between pure talc and lung cancer.

They made a point to include Chinese research that had been excluded in other studies, such as one published by employees of ChemRisk, a firm that is helping the talc industry defend itself from these product liability lawsuits.

Another group of scientists from Australia recently evaluated 27 studies looking for links between ovarian cancer and talc, concluding that women who use talc on their genital areas face "a 24%--39% increased risk of ovarian cancer."

While the lawsuits rage on, an agency charged with making clear determinations on the carcinogenicity of consumer products hasn't stepped up to the plate. The United States National Toxicology Program didn't add talc to its 2005 Congressional Report on Carcinogens despite meetings concluding that women's use of talc in the genital area is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen," and while they couldn't determine if talc caused lung cancer too, they did agree it remains in the lungs for years.

The bottom line: You'll keep seeing these headlines. I hope these lawsuits will convince the consumer products industry to openly share what it knows, when it knows it, about the potential dangers of what it's selling.

----------------

Original column, published May 3, 2016:

Does talcum powder — powder that many have slathered on babies for generations -- really cause cancer?

There are more than 1,000 women lined up to sue Johnson & Johnson over just that: cancer diagnoses they attribute to the company's talcum powder products.

In early 2016, a St. Louis jury ordered the company to pay $55 million to a South Dakota woman who had used talcum powder for years and has ovarian cancer.

But why did it take rainmaker attorneys to educate a jury from square one all the way to the point of ringing up a jackpot verdict? Johnson & Johnson positioned itself well as their target: Even though scientists have been publishing concerning studies for years, the company didn't forthrightly warn its customers there could be a major safety issue.

Talcum powder also managed to escape the oversight of federal agencies many consumers might imagine are always on high alert, surveilling the published literature for product safety concerns.

So what's the big problem with a product millions of people have considered so safe they put it on babies during diaper change?

The theory is that talcum powder, when applied in the genital region, manages to work its way up through the vagina, the cervix, the uterus, the fallopian tubes and into the ovaries.

The female reproductive system has, after all, evolved to facilitate the upward mobility of sperm in order to fertilize eggs that have descended into the uterus, and the microscopic particles of talcum powder may well keep traveling all the way up.

Indeed, doctors have identified talc particles inside cancerous ovarian tissue. Talc has also been found in pelvic lymph nodes, indicating that it made it all the way out of the fallopian tubes and into the abdominal space.

In 2013, Deane Berg of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was the first woman diagnosed with ovarian cancer to take on the medical and consumer products giant.

She came away without a dime awarded to her even though she won her suit; instead of awarding monetary damages the jury told Johnson & Johnson that it should affix a warning to its talc products like Johnson's Baby Powder and Shower to Shower, one that says the product could cause cancer.

And Berg's lawsuit laid historic legal groundwork: The company will now have to pay a combined $127 million in damages awarded in two cases by St. Louis juries this year if its appeals aren't successful.

In the Berg lawsuit, Brigham and Women's Hospital obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Daniel Cramer testified to his opinion that upwards of 10,000 women a year are developing ovarian cancer in part due to their use of talcum powder.

Pathologist Dr. John Godleski, also at Brigham, found talc particles inside Berg's ovarian tumor tissue.

I don't have records from the two St. Louis cases where juries have penalized Johnson & Johnson with megamillion-dollar awards to the plaintiffs, but I'd expect those juries saw similar evidence to what Berg presented in 2013.

In fact, Cramer and his colleagues at Brigham just published a large study looking back at over 2,000 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer and comparing their use of talcum powder with that of a similar group of women who didn't have ovarian cancer.

In showing a strong link between talc use and ovarian cancer, a 33% higher risk overall, the Brigham group specifically faulted another large study published in 2014 that didn't identify a risk. That study, Cramer wrote, didn't look at premenopausal women who seem to be at higher risk, and didn't properly weigh the role of estrogen use, which seems to be a necessary ingredient in upping the risk for ovarian cancer in postmenopausal women.

The medical debate over whether talcum powder causes ovarian cancer goes back many decades, and the attorneys in these cases are demonstrating, through internal documents they've subpoenaed, that Johnson & Johnson knew about this research.

They allege that Johnson & Johnson is akin to the tobacco companies that knew about research linking smoking to lung cancer but kept this information from the public and fought off attempts to regulate their product.

I don't think Johnson & Johnson deserves quite the opprobrium we reserve for the tobacco companies, since conflicting research did exist, but they and companies like them are setting themselves up for these kinds of lawsuits if they're not open and transparent with consumers.

A smarter approach would have been to acknowledge the worrisome research studies in their consumer literature, on their websites, and to have flagged customers somehow on their product labeling to review this material with their doctors and decide for themselves whether and how to use the products.

But it's not all Johnson & Johnson's responsibility. Federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Consumer Products Safety Commission need the authority and the funding to keep up with reported and published adverse effects of all consumer products, and actively weigh when mandatory warnings are necessary.

Companies should welcome the federal agencies taking off some of the load -- Johnson & Johnson could have shared some of its liability with such an agency by regularly checking in about how it should act, or what warning it should issue, in light of recent research.

We have a problem when it falls to trial juries to weigh the scientific data on a given product against a particular medical case and decide whether a company should be adding warning labels, or paying out large sums in the hopes the companies will learn a lesson.

That's one way to get the job done, but it's after the fact, it's messy, and it's prone to error and excess. We can expect that appeals will significantly reduce these headline-grabbing jury awards.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion. Read CNNOpinion's Flipboard magazine.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 446380

Reported Deaths: 5995
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin927471474
Ramsey39820736
Dakota32876338
Anoka30877363
Washington20066227
Stearns17813187
St. Louis13609241
Scott1191796
Wright11570104
Olmsted1041375
Sherburne818965
Carver692436
Clay650280
Rice604168
Kandiyohi553471
Blue Earth538933
Crow Wing481374
Otter Tail454466
Chisago450832
Benton418685
Winona387246
Douglas373466
Nobles368746
Mower363329
Goodhue345358
Polk327956
McLeod324245
Morrison311144
Beltrami309447
Lyon300636
Becker284139
Itasca284043
Isanti281641
Carlton278543
Steele27229
Pine266013
Freeborn243420
Todd231630
Nicollet223836
Brown214534
Mille Lacs213646
Le Sueur208815
Cass207323
Meeker199233
Waseca188916
Wabasha16953
Martin169326
Roseau165416
Hubbard149238
Redwood139527
Renville137139
Houston135613
Dodge13384
Chippewa130932
Cottonwood126818
Fillmore12245
Wadena119616
Rock109712
Sibley10837
Aitkin107633
Watonwan10638
Faribault104616
Pennington98815
Kanabec97418
Pipestone93923
Yellow Medicine93514
Murray8785
Jackson85210
Swift83118
Pope7375
Marshall70315
Stevens6978
Clearwater68514
Lac qui Parle65716
Lake63215
Wilkin6229
Koochiching59310
Lincoln4821
Big Stone4553
Unassigned43668
Grant4298
Norman4238
Mahnomen4107
Kittson37219
Red Lake3164
Traverse2503
Lake of the Woods1901
Cook1140

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 303464

Reported Deaths: 4269
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk45396448
Linn17695274
Scott15387163
Black Hawk13659236
Woodbury12953175
Johnson1204749
Dubuque11312150
Pottawattamie8942112
Dallas882171
Story863834
Webster467571
Cerro Gordo463568
Sioux453756
Clinton448861
Warren438838
Marshall425761
Buena Vista391929
Muscatine386777
Des Moines380941
Plymouth348968
Wapello341698
Jasper320458
Lee314430
Marion302152
Jones270449
Henry263430
Carroll253434
Bremer242248
Crawford228522
Boone216417
Washington214531
Benton208844
Jackson191131
Mahaska190736
Tama185857
Dickinson184226
Delaware172336
Kossuth171343
Clay166019
Wright163024
Fayette160022
Buchanan158323
Hamilton157929
Winneshiek155119
Harrison154762
Hardin154229
Cedar151819
Clayton150748
Butler146824
Page143715
Cherokee138227
Floyd138036
Mills136016
Lyon133832
Poweshiek132424
Hancock129024
Allamakee126927
Iowa123922
Calhoun12209
Grundy120226
Jefferson119524
Madison11899
Winnebago118529
Mitchell115734
Louisa114330
Cass112641
Chickasaw110612
Sac110615
Emmet110331
Appanoose109838
Union108122
Humboldt104219
Guthrie102424
Franklin101618
Shelby101426
Unassigned9160
Palo Alto9019
Keokuk84325
Montgomery84022
Howard82819
Monroe80818
Clarke7847
Pocahontas77211
Ida74030
Davis68921
Greene6887
Adair68620
Lucas6488
Osceola6349
Monona63316
Worth5993
Taylor5919
Fremont5046
Van Buren49412
Decatur4804
Ringgold4269
Wayne41421
Audubon4118
Adams2953
Rochester/St. Mary'S
Cloudy
23° wxIcon
Hi: 23° Lo: 21°
Feels Like: 17°
Mason City
Partly Cloudy
20° wxIcon
Hi: 24° Lo: 19°
Feels Like: 7°
Albert Lea
Partly Cloudy
19° wxIcon
Hi: 22° Lo: 18°
Feels Like: 11°
Austin
Partly Cloudy
21° wxIcon
Hi: 23° Lo: 20°
Feels Like: 9°
Charles City
Cloudy
21° wxIcon
Hi: 25° Lo: 21°
Feels Like: 10°
A big temperature swing is on the way
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Saturday's local highlights and scores

Image

John Marshall ready for 2021

Image

Is the City of Rochester paying men and women equally?

Image

LWVMN asks for "truth and consequences" for state lawmakers

Image

Sports Overtime Part 2

Image

Sports Overtime Part 1

Image

Plans for polar plunge

Image

Equal work and equal pay.

Image

Aaron's Friday Night Forecast

Image

Mega Millions jackpot soars to $750 million

Community Events