Last week, a jury in a St. Louis, Missouri court found in favor of defendants Johnson & Johnson and Imerys Talc in the most recent trial involving talcum powder and ovarian cancer. This was the fourth such trial in which plaintiffs alleged that their illnesses were caused by long-term use of J&J’s Baby Powder, claiming the company was aware of the risks and failed to warn consumers.

The lawsuit was brought by a Tennessee woman who attributed her ovarian cancer to having used the product for 36 years.

The first three cases resulted in judgments in favor of plaintiffs. So far, J&J has been ordered to pay out approximately $195 million to cancer victims and their families. Currently, there are over 2500 more lawsuits pending against the New Jersey-based health care products company.

The plaintiff’s counsel in this case expressed his disappointment in the outcome. He said, “We continue to maintain that the association between genital talc usage and ovarian cancer remains an issue of public health and demands that consumers be warned of the specific risks.”

On the other hand, defendant J&J is pleased about the verdict, which they call “consistent with the science, research, clinical evidence and decades of studies by medical experts around the world that continue to support the safety of cosmetic talc.” Imerys weighed in as well, thanking the jury for “following the science that establishes the safety of talc.”

It isn’t certain what science the defendants are referring to. On March 5th, a Washington D.C. television station featured a guest on a news program called “Full Measure.” The guest, Deane Berg, contracted ovarian cancer at age 49 after using J&J Baby Powder for over 30 years.  

She was the first to bring suit against J&J. At her trial was a medical expert, gynecologist Dr. Daniel Cramer, who has studied the connection between talcum powder and ovarian cancer for 25 years. Her attorney also introduced into evidence Ms. Berg’s pathology report, which included slides clearly showing talcum embedded in her ovaries. There was also a letter written to J&J in 1997 by a company consultant. The letter stated that nine different studies showed a “statistically significant association between hygienic talc use and ovarian cancer,” adding that:

“...anybody who denies this, risks that the talc industry will be perceived … like … the cigarette industry: denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”

Then, in 2004, a prominent talc producer contacted the Food and Drug Administration, advising that the use of talc be phased out and that a warning be issued because of the “possible connection” between talc and ovarian cancer. So far, the FDA has taken no action.

Interestingly, while there is still no warning on containers of commercial baby powder, there has been such a warning on industrial talc for more than ten years as a warning to workers who handle the material: “Perineal [genital] use of talc-based body powder is possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

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.