A woman who claims that she developed ovarian cancer after using products like baby powder for feminine hygiene purposes was been awarded more than $400 million after a court ruled that Johnson & Johnson failed to adequately warn her about the potential health risks.
As Reuters reported on Monday, California resident Eva Echeverria had sued the pharmaceutical company in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging that they did not do enough to warn consumers that talc-based products were potentially carcinogenic. The court sided with her and awarded her the sum of $417 million – the largest verdict of its kind for a talcum powder lawsuit.
Echeverria, now 63, said that she started using Johnson & Johnson baby powder when she was just 11 years old, according to BBC News. She continued to use those products on a daily basis for decades and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2007, the Associated Press said. Her condition is said to be terminal, and her lawsuit alleges that the talcum powder is to blame.
“Mrs. Echeverria is dying from this ovarian cancer, and… all she wanted to do was to help the other women throughout the whole country who have ovarian cancer for using Johnson & Johnson for 20 and 30 years,” her attorney, Mark Robinson, told the AP. “She really didn’t want sympathy. She just wanted to get a message out to help these other women.”
Does talcum powder really increase the risk of ovarian cancer?
J&J has vowed the appeal the ruling, which includes a total of $70 million in compensation and $347 million in punitive damages, J&J spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said, because the company is “guided by the science.” But what does the science actually say about the link between talcum powder use and cancer?
The evidence is “not conclusive,” according to BBC News health editor James Gallagher. “The mineral talc in its natural form does contain asbestos and does cause cancer, however, asbestos-free talc has been used in baby powder and other cosmetics since the 1970s,” he explained. “But the studies on asbestos-free talc give contradictory results.”
Some research has found a link between the use of talcum powder and cancer, Gallagher noted, but there are concerns that the study might have been biased, as participants are often asked to recall how much of the product they used years or even decades ago. Still others have reportedly found no link between talc and ovarian cancer, and there does not be a “dose-response” for talc (increased use leads to an increased risk), which is the case in most carcinogens.
“While on the whole studies have seen a modest increase in the risk of ovarian cancer in women who use talc on their genitals, the evidence isn’t completely clear,” noted Cancer Research UK. “Scientists are trying to see if there is a real link, but for now we can’t be sure whether or not talc itself could cause ovarian cancer. However, even if there is a risk it is likely to be fairly small.”
“The evidence of a causal association between genital talc use and ovarian cancer risk is weak,” University of Cambridge cancer epidemiology professor Paul Pharoah told Netdoctor. “And even if the association were true, the strength of the association is too small to be able to say on the balance of probabilities that any cancer arising in a woman who used talc had been caused by the talc.” At most, he added, using talc would increase the risk of ovarian cancer by 20%.
Image credit: Austin Kirk