A Missouri jury has ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $72 million in damages to the family of a woman who died from ovarian cancer, which she said was caused by products containing talcum powder.
Before her death in October 2015, Jacqueline Fox said she used talcum powder products for 35 years for feminine hygiene.
The case is one of about 1,200 that have been filed and is the first to award damages, according to attorneys involved in the case.
Talcum powder can be used in so many different ways — in baby’s diapers, as an ingredient in makeup, on sanitary pads and diaphragms and more — which makes this case so interesting, Janet Gray said in an interview with CURE. Gray is the Director of Science, Technology and Society at Vassar College.
Environmental causes of cancer have been well researched, according to Lawrence H. Kushi, from the Division of Research at Kaiser Permanente, though few definitive factors have been identified.
"[When it comes to] environmental factors, there are only a few that are widely recognized as cancer-causing and things that one should avoid," Kushi said in an interview with CURE, citing radiation, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), arsenic and asbestos as examples.
Outside of those known carcinogens, Kushi said there’s still “a lot of uncertainty."
Studies examining the specific link between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer have been mixed.
“Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk,” according to the American Cancer Society. “But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person’s memory of talc use many years earlier.”
Two prospective cohort studies — which do not have the same potential for bias — have not demonstrated a link to increased risk.
"We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial," Johnson & Johnson said in a statement on Feb. 23. "We sympathize with the plaintiff's family but firmly believe the safety of the cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence."
The family’s attorneys were charged with convincing the jury that Johnson & Johnson talcum products caused Fox’s cancer, the company knew the risk and failed to warn customers of the risk.
Nine female and one male jury member voted in favor of Fox and two males voted against, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The jury awarded Fox’s family $10 million in actual damages and $62 million in punitive damages.
James Onder, an attorney for the Fox family, said he expects Johnson & Johnson to appeal the verdict.
This case is unique in that the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer risk has actually been evaluated in studies. In general, Kushi said, many household products with agents added in the industrial process have not been studied for the potential to increase risk of cancer.
“Many of these added chemicals that we're exposed to […] the vast majority have not even been looked at for potential carcinogenicity,” Kushi said.
This point was echoed by Gray.
"Do not assume that the things we put on our body […] are inherently safe because they’re on the market," Gray said. Products are assumed to be safe until found unsafe and there is no testing that is required.