Five years ago, Deane Berg sued Johnson & Johnson claiming the company’s talc-based products she used regularly for feminine hygiene caused her to develop ovarian cancer. She pointed to decades-old documents that indicated the talc used in Johnson & Johnson’s products contained known carcinogens, and evidence that the consumer health care giant knew or should have known the products could cause cancer. But year after year, the company failed to warn consumers of this risk.
Johnson & Johnson offered to pay Deane $1.3 million to settle her lawsuit before it went to trial, but she would have to sign a confidentiality agreement. Deane refused the money and refused to keep her mouth shut. In 2013, her case became the first of its kind to go to trial.
It would be hard to change public perception. Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder products had been on retail shelves for more than a century. Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower were advertised to be safe enough for daily use, even on newborn babies. Wouldn’t it have made sense for Deane to take the money and run?
But for Deane, standing up to Johnson & Johnson was never about the money. It was about sounding the alarm for potentially millions of other women exposed to the dangers of talcum powder. In October 2013, a federal jury in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, did not award Deane damages, but jurors found that her use of Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower body powder were a factor in her developing ovarian cancer.
It marked the beginning of a change in how people viewed talc.
Sounding the alarm
Like the first smokers who took the tobacco companies to court because of lung cancer, Deane’s case exposed the dangers and conspiracy behind talcum powder exposure, and paved the way for thousands of women to bring claims against companies that deceived them about the risks.
Much has changed in the five years since Deane sued Johnson & Johnson. Last fall, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized thousands of ovarian cancer claims against Johnson & Johnson, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc., Imerys Talc America, and the national trade association Personal Care Products Council. The cases were consolidated in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, the location of Johnson & Johnson’s headquarters. The multidistrict litigation (MDL), overseen by U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson, has since grown to more than 6,500 cases. The number of cases is expected to grow as more women learn of the causal connection and evidence mounts.
How is talc dangerous?
Talc is a naturally occurring mineral mined from the earth. It is composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen, and can be found in close proximity to other naturally occurring minerals including asbestos, arsenic, quartz and heavy metals. These minerals are classified as “carcinogenic to humans” or “possibly carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization.
To prevent the contamination of talc with asbestos and other dangerous minerals, it is essential that talc-mining sites be carefully selected and steps be taken to sufficiently purify talc ore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said in a recent Safety Communication. Because of growing concerns about the safety of talc, the agency conducted a survey of cosmetic-grade raw material talc or cosmetic products containing talc to look for the presence of asbestos. The FDA determined that because testing samples were so limited, the results “do not prove that most or all talc or talc-containing cosmetic products currently marketed in the United States are likely to be free of asbestos contamination.”
J&J knew its talc was dangerous
Plaintiffs suing Johnson & Johnson claim that the company has been aware of the pervasive problem of asbestos in its baby powder since the 1950s, based on the company’s own documents.
For example, in 1969, the company’s internal doctor warned that because of the risk of lung diseases and cancer from asbestos “it would seem prudent to limit possible content of Tremolite (asbestos) in our powder formulations.” He further acknowledged that “we could become involved in litigation” and advised Johnson & Johnson’s law department “be consulted with regard to the defensibility of our position.”
Years later, a series of epidemiological studies were conducted to determine whether talcum powder on the genitals increased the risk of ovarian cancer. The first case-control study, conducted by Dr. Daniel Cramer with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, found a statistically significant 92 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer in women who reported using talcum powder on their genitals.
Dozens of other studies followed, each suggesting a link between ovarian cancer and regular genital use of talcum powder. In 1999, Dr. Cramer conducted another case-control study finding a “significant association between the use of talc in genital hygiene and risk of epithelial ovarian cancer that, when viewed in perspective of published data on this association, warrants more formal public health warnings.”
Despite these grievous concerns, Johnson & Johnson continued to advertise its talcum powder products as safe for daily use.
How does talc cause ovarian cancer?
According to experts, talcum powder applied to the genitals can travel to the ovaries and cause chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, resulting in the development of ovarian cancer.
Using asbestos-containing talcum powder products on the perineum and/or on other parts of the body can also generate airborne asbestos and talc fibers that can be inhaled and translocate from the lungs to the ovarian tissue, they added.
But, the carcinogenic risks of exposure to talc goes beyond asbestos, they cautioned. Talcum powder users are also exposed to other carcinogens that can be found naturally in mined talc, including arsenic, heavy metals and quartz.
Johnson & Johnson has known for years that it was mining talc in places where asbestos and other dangerous minerals were located. They denied it and they continue to deny it. But thanks to women like Deane Berg, those who have suffered injuries from talcum powder exposure are seeking justice.
New York Post
National Cancer Institute
American Cancer Society