Johnson & Johnson spent more than a decade building consumer trust with its health care products, promising its talcum powders were safe enough for babies, and ideal for women to use them on their genitals for personal hygiene. When news broke that the company was being sued over claims that its iconic Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower body powder caused women to develop ovarian cancer, it was a hard pill to swallow.
The first lawsuit to be tried involved the case of Deane Berg, who presented evidence that Johnson & Johnson knew that there were studies that showed applying talcum powder to the genitals could increase a woman’s risk for ovarian cancer. But the company never informed the public of this risk. The jury sided with Berg in her claim that J&J should have warned consumers, but didn’t order the company to pay her any damages. Nonetheless, her trial was groundbreaking.
Last summer, the outcome was much different. A Missouri jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $4.69 billion to 22 women who claimed that the company’s talcum powder products were contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen, and caused them to develop ovarian cancer.
Asbestos exposure is associated with lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that develops in the lining of internal organs, like the lungs and abdomen. Could asbestos, or even other impurities in talc, actually cause ovarian cancer? Wayne Ghassan Saed, PhD, with the Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit, Michigan, set out to find out.
He and colleagues showed that talc could cause inflammation in normal and ovarian cancer cells. “I went to the lab, took the powder, and added it to ovarian cancer cell lines,” said Dr. Saed, who works as an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology as well as cell biology. Even more surprising is that healthy fallopian cells reacted similarly, which fell in step with an emerging consensus that ovarian cancer begins in the fallopian tubes.
“This is the first in vitro study that shows a direct biological effect on what’s thought to be an inert substance on ovarian cancer cells and, most importantly, normal cells coming from the fallopian tubes,” Dr. Saed added. Most of the previous studies have shown that women who reported genital use of talcum powder were more likely to develop the deadly disease.
Dr. Saed said he plans to continue his study on talc. In the future, he plans to inject talcum powder directly into the reproductive systems of laboratory rats. “Hopefully these next studies will confirm our findings and provide important information to share with the public to tell them to stop using talcum powder,” he said.
The attorneys in our Mass Torts section have been privileged to represent thousands of women who developed ovarian cancer after using talcum powder in the genital area. Beasley Allen’s Talc Litigation team has partnered with other law firms around the country to take these cases to court. Ted Meadows is heading up the talc trial team, and Leigh O’Dell is serving as co-lead counsel for consolidated multidistrict litigation (MDL) in New Jersey federal court.