A study recently published in the journal Reproductive Sciences has found the possible mechanism by which talc exposure causes ovarian cancer. A great deal of research over the years has established a link between talc and ovarian cancer – but association by itself does not mean causation. Thanks to the efforts of three women scientists working at Wayne State University in Detroit, there is a greater understanding of that causation.

The study involved the in vitro application of talc to both healthy and cancerous ovarian cells. In both cases, contact between talc and the cells led to oxidation, similar to the process of cut fruit turning brown when exposed to air or an iron surface rusting. The effects on living cells, however, is far more serious and can cause a malignancy.

When talc came in contact with ovarian cells, the levels of oxidants rose rapidly over a 24-hour period, while anti-oxidant levels fell. In addition to causing cellular mutations that lead to cancer, the researchers found an increase of a protein known as CA-125. This protein is a cancer antigen, which is any substance foreign to the body that elicits an immune response. Oncologists monitor their patients’ blood for CA-125 levels in order to determine how well they are responding to treatment. In diagnostic medicine, it can be an early indicator of a malignancy.

On top of everything else, the cancer cells appear to feed on talc. Its presence caused a growth in the number of cancer cells, while inhibiting apoptosis (cell death). One member of the research team, Gassan Saed, has noted that talc exposure causes similar changes in healthy cells of the fallopian tubes, where cancer researchers believe ovarian cancer starts. It’s worth noting that lawyers for Johnson & Johnson in present litigation have filed motions to exclude testimony from Saed.

While the results of the current study are not 100 percent definitive, it gives plaintiffs in current talcum powder litigation some powerful ammunition in their fight to hold Johnson & Johnson accountable. Currently, there are approximately 14,000 pending lawsuits against the health care products company by plaintiffs claiming they contracted cancer as a result of using talc-containing products such as Baby Powder and Shower to Shower. So far, most of the verdicts have favored plaintiffs. Last year, a federal jury in St. Louis awarded $4.7 billion to a group of 22 women who claimed asbestos contamination in the talc caused their diseases.

It is a scientific fact that asbestos deposits frequently occur near talc mines, since both minerals are formed by similar geologic processes. It is also true that asbestos is a carcinogen. One type of cancer, mesothelioma, has no other known cause other than radiation or asbestos exposure. Nonetheless, it is now apparent that Johnson & Johnson’s dubious claims that their talc has always been asbestos-free may be moot in cases going forward involving ovarian cancer.

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.