Thousands of lawsuits involving claims that talcum powder causes ovarian cancer have been filed—mostly in St. Louis and New Jersey. The defendants named in the litigation are: the manufacturer of the products, Johnson & Johnson; its parent company, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies; the company that mines the talc for the manufacturer, Imerys Talc America f/k/a Luzenac America; and the trade associate responsible for representing industry interest and lobbying on against regulation of talc.
Talcum powder is made from the mineral talc, which is combination of the elements magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. Talcum powder has been used in cosmetic products for decades and was commonly marketed as a useful way to absorb moisture, keep skin dry, and to prevent friction and rashes.
According to the FDA, talc is used in over 4,200 different cosmetic products and 40,000 pharmaceutical products in the United States. Currently there is no FDA warning concerning the negative physical side effects of talcum powder in products like Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder or Shower-to-Shower products because “under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FD&C Act”), cosmetic products and ingredients, with the exception of color additives, do not have to undergo FDA review or approval before they go on the market.” The FDA needs “sound scientific data” before it issues a warning that a cosmetic product is harmful under its intended use.
The first study linking talcum powder usage to ovarian cancer was published in 1971. Scientists took a microscopic analysis of 13 ovarian tumors and discovered that 10 of the tumors had talc particles deeply embedded in the tissue.
Then, in 1982, the Journal of Cancer published a case-controlled study of the links between ovarian cancer and intimate talcum powder use. The study involved 215 women diagnosed as having ovarian cancer in Boston hospitals from November 1978 to September 1981. Of the women, approximately 43 percent “said they dusted talc on their genitals or on sanitary napkins, against about 28 percent of a control group of similar background, age and marital status who said they did not use talc.”
In 1994, the Cancer Prevention Coalition petitioned the FDA to require cosmetic products containing talc to bear the warning: “Talcum powder causes cancer in laboratory animals. Frequent talc application in the female genital area increases the risk of ovarian cancer.” However, the FDA did not mandate a warning on the product because it determined that the scientific studies linking talc to ovarian cancer were not substantial enough to warrant such a warning.
In 2005, the National Toxicology Program (a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) decided not to list talc as a cancer-causing agent because, like the FDA, it found the data insufficient to support a warning. However, in 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, classified talc as a Group 2B agent, which means it is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
In 2007, the year the first talc lawsuit was filed, the Cancer Registry of Norway published a report after conducting one cohort study and 20 case controlled studies. The Cancer Registry of Norway cited mixed results regarding the link between perineal region talc use and ovarian cancer. The cohort study, which the report suggested was the strongest, revealed “there was no association between cosmetic talc use and risk of all subtypes of ovarian cancer combined.” The case controlled studies were split down the middle with half showing an increased risk and half showing non significant excess risk.
Plaintiffs in this litigation assert that the defendants knew that talc-based products could cause ovarian cancer when used for personal hygiene, but failed to warn consumers of such increased risk.