The brand Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has long been associated with gentle, safe body care products until 2017.
During this time, a Virginia woman named Lois Slemp sued (J&J) for millions, blaming many of its products, including the iconic baby powder, as the cause of her ovarian cancer.
The Missouri court compelled the giant brand to pay her $110 million, although this was later overturned by the state appeals court due to technicality.
Nevertheless, since then, the company has been swamped by multibillion-dollar class-action and individual lawsuits. As of 2019, the Missouri appellate court upheld a $2 billion worth of civil action. Many experts, including personal injury lawyers, now specialize in these types of cases.
But how did it all begin, and are there bases to these lawsuits?
The Primary Issue: Talc and Asbestos
The massive lawsuits stem from one of the primary ingredients used by J&J for most of its powder products, which is talc.
Talc is a natural clay mineral that is also an underground deposit. It is one of the softest minerals on the planet, which makes it easier to transform into powder.
For brands like J&J, they will then use the powder form and perhaps combine it with cornstarch to improve the product’s lubrication and softness. It also provides baby and bath powders the distinct sweet fragrance the brand is highly known for.
However, internal documents shared during the trials seemed to suggest that the company already knew as early as the 1950s that the talcum they had might have also contained a similar but dangerous substance called asbestos.
Asbestos is a fibrous silicate mineral often used as insulation in many old homes. Although it was effective, it became one of the most common carcinogens.
When asbestos breaks, the small fibers can enter the lungs and lodge there for years. When left untreated, it can lead to severe respiratory illnesses and a rare form of cancer known as mesothelioma.
Unfortunately, both talc and asbestos can be mined in the same place. Thus, the women and their families suing J&J believed that some talc powder may have traces of asbestos.
When applied to their delicate areas, asbestos can therefore enter their body, and that may increase their risk of developing ovarian cancer. Based on their theory, this substance can travel through the vaginal canal and be carried into the bloodstream to the ovaries.
There, they may increase the odds of chronic inflammation, which may then possibly lead to cancer.
Others also posit that since talc and asbestos share a lot of similar characteristics, the fine particles of talc may also be inhaled and cause not only ovarian cancer but also mesothelioma.
Perhaps one of the biggest arguments that favor the plaintiffs is that J&J failed to indicate the risks associated with their products even if company documents showed that they knew about the possible contamination of asbestos.
But What Does Science Say?
In reality, the results of studies about the safety of talc on humans are mixed. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), there have been many but limited studies that revealed a small increased risk of developing ovarian or lung-related cancers for being exposed to or using talc.
In a critical review in 2008, the researchers seemed to echo ACS’s statement, saying many studies also linked talc with cancer, and that the relative risk could be 1.3.
However, based on the review, the experts argued that even if talc is similar to asbestos, it does not possess carcinogenic properties. Moreover, it is not a fibrous mineral, which means when inhaled it doesn’t cause severe damage to the lungs.
About 12 years later, a prospective observational study in JAMA involving 250,000 women showed no link between the use of talc in the genital area and the increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
However, other experts argued that these studies, no matter how large, may be subject to bias. For example, if they are self-reported, then women may either exaggerate or underreport their length or frequency of use of talc powder.
Further, according to Drugwatch.com, although companies need to remove any impurity from their ingredients, no government agency monitors the process. The industry polices itself.
Not only that, despite the obvious harm that asbestos can cause to health, the United States remains one of the few countries that don’t ban the product. In fact, it continues to import the product as of 2019 and 2020.
No doubt, whether talcum powder is indeed a dangerous product to use remains a major debate. But for those wary about it can talk about the topic with their doctors. They can also discuss its possible merit in a lawsuit with a personal injury lawyer.