Thousands of women have filed class-action lawsuits claiming Johnson & Johnson failed to notify them that their talc-containing products could put them at risk of cancer.
Photo via Flickr user Austin Kirk
Applying a fine dusting of baby powder to the outer labia, post-shower or bath, is one of those long-practiced feminine hygiene hacks that you may have learned from your mother, who likely learned it from hers, and so on, back through the matrilineal generations.
Baby powder has long been recommended to relieve chafing or to reduce the appearance of bumpy post-shave inflammation; however, studies show that the very product many women use to soothe a sore vulva may in fact end up causing a world of pain—in the form of notoriously hard-to-detect ovarian cancer.
This year, the American Cancer Society released new estimates for the number of women they predict will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year alone: 22,280. Dr. Daniel W. Cramer, who is the lead author of the first-ever study to link talc use and ovarian cancer, estimates that about 10 percent of those diagnoses can be attributed to regular, long-term talc use. (Though Dr. Cramer has conducted extensive research linking talc with ovarian cancer—including a case study last year that found a 33 percent increase in ovarian cancer risk among women who applied talc to their genitals—"epidemiological studies have produced mixed results," according to the Scientist.)
Now, over 1,000 women are suing Johnson & Johnson for allegedly covering up this alleged cancer risk. Earlier this year, two separate juries ruled against the company: In February, a St. Louis jury awarded $72 million to the family of a woman named Jacqueline Fox, who died from ovarian cancer in October 2015 after years of using talc-containing products from Johnson & Johnson, most notably their baby powder and Shower-to-Shower body powder marketed for feminine hygiene.
Last month, another St. Louis jury awarded $55 million to ovarian cancer survivor Gloria Ristesund. For over 40 years, Ristesund had made habitual use of the same Johnson & Johnson talc-containing products that Ms. Fox and dozens of other plaintiffs in the talc litigation used regularly over the course of several decades.
Danielle Ward Mason is a principal attorney at the law firm Beasley Allen, which represented both Ms. Fox's family and Gloria Ristesund in their cases. She spends much of her time traveling around the country to collect preservation depositions from women who are dying from late-stage ovarian cancer. Should they not live to see their day in court, she hopes to make sure that justice is served on their behalf.
I've done depositions in hospital rooms; I've done them in nursing homes.
Collecting these in extremis depositions, as they are called, is not easy. "It's such an emotional process," Mason says. "You are kind of their beacon of hope at that very tough time in their life. I've held lots of hands, and I've sat and cried with many of them. Some of them can't even get out of their own bed. I've done depositions in hospital rooms; I've done them in nursing homes. Usually, within a few weeks to a month after the deposition, I'm usually notified that they've passed away."
Mason believes that both of her recent cases highlight the severity and scope of the problem: Of the $72 million awarded to Fox's family, for instance, $62 million were in punitive damages. "I believe the numbers show that these jurors not only believe that this is a true issue, but believe also that Johnson & Johnson should be severely punished for it," she says. "The majority of these verdicts are punitive damage awards, and those are only given when there is evidence that shows that the company has behaved in a reckless way, in a way that disregards human life."
Despite the size and scope of these suits, Johnson & Johnson is not ready to accept the blame that juries have now twice placed on their product. In fact, on their corporate website, they have devoted an entire page to refuting claims that talc is carcinogenic. And, after Johnson & Johnson lost the second lawsuit in May, a company spokesperson said in a statement that "the jury's decision goes against 30 years of studies by medical experts around the world that continue to support the safety of cosmetic talc."
The problem, as Mason sees it, is that the company is unwilling to accept the correlation between talc and ovarian cancer as scientifically significant; they have doubled down on their claims that talc is safe and that the science doesn't support causation. According to Mason, Johnson & Johnson thinks "that we should be able to show and prove that talc causes the single genetic mutation that then gets copied over and over again and then results in cancer. That's not the theory of our case."
The defense also refutes the notion that talc has the ability to migrate from the external genitals to the inside of your pelvic tract, through your fallopian tubes, and into your internal reproductive organs, according to Mason. "We have been able to show—and even their own experts have agreed—that talc creates a foreign-body inflammatory reaction in the pelvic system," she says. "Inflammation is something that we all know, and they agree, is an environment in which cancers grow; we don't have to prove that talc is the sole cause of cancer. We just have to prove that it's a contributing factor."
If this news of talc's danger comes as a surprise, reader: you are not alone. "When I first heard it, I was like, You've gotta be kidding me! It just defied all of what I'd grown up with," says Mason. "I'm a black woman, and the practice of using talcum powder—all over the body, and particularly in the genital area—that is something that I grew up knowing about. It's something that's really culturally prevalent in our community."
A 1992 Johnson & Johnson memo obtained by Bloomberg shows that the company has intentionally marketed its baby powder to communities of color—specifically, "African American and Hispanic" markets. Disturbingly, the same memo references "negative publicity from the health community," including "cancer linkage," as a "major obstacle" to sales.
According to Mason, black women tend to have a naturally protective effect against ovarian cancer, for what could be a number of reasons. "If we didn't use talc, then we're at a lower baseline risk for ovarian cancer versus most other women," she notes. "But when you add talc to the mix, we actually increase our risk anywhere from 400 percent to 500 percent."
"It just really paints a very nasty story," adds Mason. "I've read the literature, and I've talked to our experts. It is quite convincing, what's out there. There is definitely enough cause for concern, for Johnson & Johnson to have put a warning label on the bottle"—which they have not done—"that's just as clear-cut as clear can be."