Jun 2, 2021
Johnson & Johnson’s infamous baby powder has been under scrutiny once again this week. Following years of legal battles over allegations that the talc in the baby powder causes cancer, Johnson & Johnson is asking for a review of the $2 billion verdict favouring women who claim the product led them to develop ovarian cancer.
In February 2016, J&J was ordered to pay $72 million to the family of Jacqueline Fox. Ms Fox claimed her ovarian cancer was caused by the asbestos that was found present in the company’s
Johnson’s Baby Powder. Ms Fox was one of the 22 individual plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company and passed away four months before the trial.
Multiple other lawsuits followed, and Johnson & Johnson said it would appeal all of them. In 2018, a Missouri judge refused to overturn the $4.7 billion verdict and wrote that “defendants knew of the presence of asbestos in products that they knowingly targeted for sale to mothers and babies, knew of the damage their products caused, and misrepresented the safety of these products for
However, the appeals court did cut the payout money by more than half and eliminated some of the plaintiffs.
Does Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder cause cancer?
Experts are far from certain on whether the powder is what caused their cancer. While talc is a known cancerogenic, it’s hard to establish whether the specific product itself caused the disease
in the plaintiffs.
In some cases, scientists know the likelihood of certain carcinogens causing a certain type of cancer; for example, HPV is responsible for a big chunk of cases of cervical cancer. However,
when it comes to chemicals like benzene, someone needs to be exposed to very high levels of it for there to be evidence of a direct link between the product and cancer.
It’s trickier when it comes to household substances that are used every day. Talc is similar in structure to asbestos, which is a known carcinogen and can be obtained from the same mines.
Back in 1976, the cosmetics industry agreed any talc-based products it manufactured would not contain detectable amounts of asbestos.
“When talking about whether or not talcum powder is linked to cancer, it is important to distinguish between talc that contains asbestos and talc that is asbestos-free,” said the American Cancer Society on a dedicated webpage to the question whether baby powder causes cancer.
“Talc that has asbestos is generally accepted as being able to cause cancer if it is inhaled. This type of talc is not used in modern consumer products. The evidence about asbestos-free talc, which is still widely used, is less clear.”
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) confirms that it has not found asbestos in any of the talcum products that it has reviewed. “All talcum products used in homes in the United States
have been asbestos-free since the 1970s,” the American Cancer Society adds.
J&J still has $2 billion to payout. Nine of the women have died from ovarian cancer, according to their lawyers. J&J denies that the talc in their products causes cancer and considers the verdict
“at odds with decades of independent scientific evaluations confirming Johnson’s Baby Powder is safe, is not contaminated by asbestos and does not cause cancer.”
Back in 2020, J&J announced that it would stop selling its talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder in the U.S. and Canada despite the fact that the company does not believe talc and cancer are
linked. Instead, the company’s cornstarch-based powder will take its place in the aforementioned markets.