Carcinogens in Talcum Powder?
The pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay $72 million (£51 million) to the family of a woman who claimed her ovarian cancer was caused by talcum powder.
Johnson & Johnson is currently facing 1,200 lawsuits in the US from customers who claim they were not warned about the risks.
A jury in St Louis, Missouri, said the company had failed to warn users of the potential dangers despite concerns raised by the American Cancer Society in 1999.
Mrs Fox claimed she used two of the company’s talc-based products – Baby Powder and Shower to Shower – as feminine hygiene produces for more than 35 years before being diagnosed three years ago with ovarian cancer. She died last year of ovarian cancer. However the ruling is likely to prove controversial because most cancer experts believe the link is unproven.
Paul Pharoah, Professor of Cancer Epidemiology said it was ‘biologically plausible’ that grains of talcum could enter the fallopian tubes and cause inflammation in the ovaries which could lead to disease. Although the risk was small, Prof Pharoah said it that talc ‘more likely than not’ raised a woman’s chance of developing ovarian cancer.
Speaking about the risk Prof Pharoah said: “The association is biologically plausible. Talcum powder applied to the genital area might get into the fallopian tubes and onto the ovaries and cause inflammation, which in turn could cause ovarian cancer.”
“On balance, I think that it is more likely than not that there is an association between genital talc use and risk of some types of ovarian cancer.”
However Prof Pharoah said that, despite the raised risk, it was unlikely a British court would have come to the same conclusion as jurors in the US.
“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,” he added.
“It’s important to remember the size of the possible risk – a 20 year old woman in the UK has a risk of getting ovarian cancer at some point in her life of 18 in a thousand; a 20 per cent increase in this risk would raise this to 22 in a thousand.”
Although many talcum powder manufacturers in the US have since switched to corn starch following the scare in the 90s, in Britain most still use talcum.
Before the 1970s, talcum powder was often contaminated with asbestos fibres which are known to cause cancer. But since then, all home products containing talcum powder are legally obliged to be asbestos-free.
Most studies suggesting a connection have since been found to be flawed because they relied on people recalling use of talcum powder many years previously.
The only large cohort study found there was no link to ovarian cancer. Even studies which suggest a link found that it only raises the risk by around 20 per cent.
Cancer Research UK states on its website: “If something truly causes cancer, you would expect people who are exposed to more of that thing to have a higher risk.
“For example, the more you smoke, the higher your risk of lung cancer. But the majority of the studies have not found a similar relationship for talc use and ovarian cancer.”
The ovarian cancer charity Ovacome also said: “The evidence for a link is weak, but even if talc does increase the risk of ovarian cancer studies suggest it would be by around a third.