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U.S. Court Rules Baby Powder Causes Ovarian Cancer. But Does It?

U.S. courts have awarded millions to women who say the talc in baby powder caused their ovarian cancer. Scientists are not convinced.

Johnson & Johnson lost a $417 million lawsuit on Monday to 62-year-old Eva Echeverria, a woman who claimed that her daily use of the company’s talc-containing baby powder gave her ovarian cancer. Thousands of similar baby powder cases are pending in state and federal courts, but this is one of only a handful to return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff.

“Mrs. Echeverria is dying from this ovarian cancer and she said to me all she wanted to do was to help the other women throughout the whole country who have ovarian cancer,” Echeverria’s attorney, Mark Robinson, told NBC“Johnson & Johnson had many warning bells over a 30 year period but failed to warn the women who were buying its product.”

Echeverria, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, told the jury that she had been using J&J’s baby powder for feminine hygiene since she was 11 years old, and that she stopped using it in 2016 after she read that studies had linked talc powder to ovarian cancer. She testified that she would have stopped sooner, had there been a warning label.

It is crucial to note that, although Echeverria and her lawyers demonstrated to the satisfaction of a jury that baby powder causes ovarian cancer. Experts remain unconvinced. “We are guided by the science, which supports the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder,” J&J spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said pointedly after the trial. “We are preparing for additional trials in the U.S. and we will continue to defend the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder.” Specifically that research will be on talc, the supposed offending ingredient in baby powder, which is composed of  the generally harmless ingredients magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. Isolated studies suggest a tenuous link between talc and ovarian cancer, and some epidemiologists believe baby powder use can increase risk of ovarian cancer by 30 percent. Baby powders once contained asbestos, a known carcinogen, but no such products have existed in the U.S. since the 1970s.

 

The theory, lent legal but not scientific credence by the new ruling, is that talc can travel from the vagina to the ovaries, causing inflammation. “We know that inflammation increases ovarian cancer risk. We know talcum powder causes inflammation. The question is, does talc cause cancer by causing inflammation in the ovaries?” Adetunji Toriola of Washington University in St. Louis told Reuters.

Daniel Cramer, a Harvard University epidemiologist and coauthor on many of the studies linking talc to ovarian cancer, testified that a handful of poorly-designed studies had suggested baby powder increases risk of cancer. But he also admitted that the only two rigorous studies conducted to date (known as prospective cohort studies) did not suggest any link between talc use and ovarian cancers. “Cohort studies provide much more definitive answers,” Toriola told Reuters. Perhaps that’s why the World Health Organization classifies talc as merely “possibly carcinogenic.” a loose designation reserved for dubious cancer risks that go largely ignored, such as coffee and magnetic fields.

In other words, baby powder probably doesn’t cause ovarian cancer. But that won’t stop juries from following scant scientific evidence that just so happens to rise to legal significance—which is bad news for Johnson & Johnson. Only a few months ago a St. Louis, Missouri jury awarded $110.5 million to a Virginia woman who claimed baby powder caused her ovarian cancer, and in 2016 juries awarded a collective $307 million in damages from talc.

As for concerned talc users, there’s little to worry about. At the same time, however, nobody actually needs baby powder, family doctor Ronit Mishori of Georgetown University told Reuters. “If you are concerned, just don’t use it.”