New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, once touted as the “Most Trusted Brand in America,” had a bad year in 2016. Among its other legal problems, it has been ordered to pay a total of $197 million in judgments to plaintiffs in three different talcum powder trials.

As of this past October, J&J was a named defendant in approximately 1,700 lawsuits, alleging that the company ignored studies indicating a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer and failed to warn consumers. Now that three different juries have found in favor of plaintiffs, more women who have been the victim of this product are coming forward with their own cases, while litigation attorneys across the country are investigating thousands more and taking on more paralegals in anticipation of a significant increase in the number of lawsuits. This suggests that 2017 will be even worse for the pharmaceutical giant.

One interesting aspect of this ongoing litigation is that Imerys Talc America, Inc., which has also been named a defendant, was found not liable in the first two trials. Imerys is the supplier of the talc used in J&J’s Baby Powder, and was ordered to pay a $2.5 million penalty in the third trial, which involved a 62-year-old woman from Central California who had used the product for forty years and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. That trial came to a close this past October, and J&J is appealing the verdict because – according to a company spokesperson – the company is “guided by the science, which supports the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder.”

In fact, two of the lawsuits against J&J were dismissed earlier last year because of a lack of evidence. However, the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that a number of lab studies involving rodents show that exposure to talc can lead to the formation of tumors. At the same time, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified the genital use of baby powder containing talc to be “possibly carcinogenic to humans.

In evidence presented during trials, talc particles have been found to migrate into the Fallopian tubes of cancer victims, strongly indicating a connection between the substance and ovarian cancer. This concern has been raised since 1971, when researchers in the U.K. discovered talc particles “deeply embedded” in a large number of ovarian tumors. Another study, published over a decade later in the November 1982 issue of Obstretrical & Gynecological Survey, showed a definite link between ovarian cancer and genital use of talcum powder.

The ACS recommends that people concerned about the cancer risks of talc-containing baby powder avoid the product.

So far, the three verdicts have barely put a dent in J&J’s revenue; the company made $2 billion on its infant care products, which include Baby Powder, in 2015 alone. With three losses so far, some legal experts would recommend J&J consider entering into a settlement, but so far, the corporate defendant shows no signs of moving in that direction. J&J continues to maintain that its product is completely safe, and it remains on the market. At this point, a settlement – even one in which the company denies any liability – would strongly suggest an admission by the company that there is a problem with its product.  

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.