Johnson & Johnson, the personal care product company, was ordered by a court in Misourri to pay a $72 million settlement. This settlement includes $10 million awarded to the family of Jackie Fox, whose death from ovarian cancer was connected to her use of talcum powder made by Johnson & Johnson. The company then must pay another $62 million in punitive damages.
Fox was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013 and died in 2015. She was one of several dozen women who sued Johnson & Johnson for damages related to their cancer diagnoses. The plaintiffs had all used Johnson & Johnson hygiene products that contained talc, the main ingredient in talcum powder, and their lawyers argued that these products were the cause of their cancer.
Oncologists have suspected a connection between talcum powder and cancer, and for a while, doctors used to advise parents to avoid baby powder that contains talc. (Corn starch is the main ingredient in many talc-free baby powders.)
The old connection between talcum powder and cancer, however, could be because the talcum powder manufactured in previous decades sometimes contained asbestos, a known carcinogen. Now that it is possible to ensure that talcum powder is free of asbestos, some oncologists assert that modern talcum powder does not elevate the user’s risk of developing cancer.
Eva Chalas, the Chief of Gynecological Oncology and Director of Clinical Cancer Services at Winthrop-University Hospital, is not convinced that use of talcum powder increases the risk of ovarian cancer. She said that the plaintiffs in the case may have been exposed to asbestos-contaminated talcum powder from years ago, but that talc itself, and the hygiene products containing it, do not pose a major cancer risk, especially when used as directed.
She notes that the plaintiffs who sued Johnson & Johnson had applied talcum powder to their genitals, and that one should be especially careful about applying products to the genital area. She also points out that leading risk factors for ovarian cancer include age, family history, and some contraceptives, and that the plaintiffs’ lawyers did not establish that talcum powder contributed to the women’s cancer more than the other, more significant, risk factors did.
Nora Freeman Engstrom, a professor of law at Stanford University, notes that this case could set a precedent for other lawsuits in which cancer patients are suing Johnson & Johnson.