After less than five hours of deliberation following a three-week trial, a jury in St. Louis decided February 22 that health-care products maker Johnson & Johnson should pay $72 million in damages to the family of a 62-year-old woman who died in 2015 from ovarian cancer, which the plaintiffs argued was caused by decades-long use of J&J products containing talcum powder.
It was the first case in which a jury ordered J&J to pay damages linked to talc-bearing products – in this case Johnson’s Baby Powder, used by almost one in five American families, and Shower to Shower, a talc-based product marketed for feminine hygiene uses (J&J sold off the second brand in 2012).
The jury awarded $10 million in damages to compensate family members for the death of Jacqueline Fox. Another $62 million was awarded as punitive damages; plaintiffs’ lawyers argued the company knew of, but failed to disclose, the potential cancer hazard.
Johnson & Johnson adamantly denies any link between its products and ovarian cancer. At trial, company lawyers argued that the cause of Ms. Fox’s cancer was unknown. A company spokeswoman says cosmetic talc’s safety is well-established by longstanding use and scientific research.
The world’s softest mineral, talc is used in a wide variety of consumer and construction products. In cosmetic products, it prevents chafing and rashes and absorbs moisture. It’s known to be hazardous when inhaled, and some talc products in the past were only minimally refined, and so might contain naturally-occurring asbestos fibers. J&J only uses talc of tested purity, but also offers alternative product formulations in which cornstarch substitutes for talc.
The American Cancer Society’s website notes “mixed results” from research on whether talcum powder use can lead to ovarian cancer, but also says there is “some suggestion” it may increase the risk, and advises women using powder in the area of their genitals to use cornstarch-based products. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer similarly describes it as “possibly carcinogenic.” Studies of large groups of talc users have differed on whether there is an elevated risk of ovarian cancer.
In the U.S., the Center for Disease Control has never identified talc as a risk factor for ovarian cancer, and its use in personal-care products is also permitted in Canada, the European Union, and many other nations.
The St. Louis jury, however, appeared to have been persuaded by internal company documents, including one from a medical consultant who in 1997 advised Johnson & Johnson that denying the risk would be seen by the public as akin to denial of a link between smoking and cancer.
The jury foreperson called those documents “decisive” in persuading the jury J&J knew of a risk but refused to warn purchasers. She told reporters the company seemed to be “hiding something,” and could have easily adopted a label warning of the hazard.
For its part, J&J said the verdict contravened “decades of sound science” and will undoubtedly appeal. Even if the verdict stands, the size of the award will also be challenged. But with two large class-action cases already filed, and well over a thousand plaintiffs identified, the controversy over talcum powder’s possible link to ovarian cancer will not disappear from the nation’s courtrooms anytime soon.