Does using talc cause ovarian cancer?

A flurry of lawsuits in the US suggests juries think it does, but health experts aren’t so sure


In two recent legal battles, both in the US State of Missouri, Johnson & Johnson has lost its argument that talcum powder is perfectly safe to use.

It’s been a costly loss for the pharmaceutical giant who in the past month has been ordered to pay $55 million to the latest successful plaintiff, suffering from ovarian cancer (currently in remission), alongside an earlier judgement in February of $72 million to the family of a woman who died from ovarian cancer.

Both women alleged that years of using talcum powder on their bodies, and particularly on their genital areas, was a direct cause of their cancer and that Johnson & Johnson knew of the risks and should have placed a warning on the product.

Another 1,200 eager litigants with similar stories are lining up to take the company to court and law firms around America are advertising for even more to come forward and join the battle.

The latest move against the talc manufacturer follows a study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston published in March which firmly links talc use to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.

The researchers interviewed 2,041 women who suffered from the disease and 2,100 who were cancer free to compare their use of talcum powder.

From the answers they received they calculated a 33% higher risk among women who used talc on their genitals.

But Dr Daniel Cramer, who led the study, has been linking talc to ovarian cancer since the early 80s without being able to point to any firm scientific evidence and there has been some criticism of his own study for inviting sufferers to allocate ‘blame’ for their condition after the fact.

There has been discussion about the association between talcum powders and cancer since 1971 when researchers at the Welsh National School of Medicine analysed 13 ovarian tumours and found particles of talc ‘deeply embedded’ in 10 of the tissue samples.

In its natural form talc often contains asbestos, a well-documented carcinogen, but since 1976, that is well after the Welsh research findings, talc has been graded and filtered to remove any traces and testing by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) found absolutely no asbestos in a complete range of talc-based products.

Nonetheless researchers in 1995 and again in 2000 again concluded that there was a plausible link between talc and ovarian cancer but could find no conclusive evidence, a position confirmed by both Cancer UK and The American Cancer Society.

The presence of talc in the workplace environment is regulated by the US health and safety bodies which have set a safety limit of 2mg/m3 over an eight hour period.

At the same time the FDA recognises talc to be safe to use as an anti-caking agent in table salt in concentrations smaller than 2%.

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that parents do not use talc as a baby powder, but as a precaution against respiratory problems rather than cancer issues.

Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, marketing their talc derivatives specifically as personal hygiene and baby care products, point out that 30 years of clinical testing and over 100 years of wide ranging use by their customers has failed to highlight any conclusive link between talc and cancer.

This almost schizophrenic relationship between talc and science is well reflected in the current official advice offered by the UK ovarian cancer charities who essentially admit that a link cannot be proven but advise caution when using it, especially in the female genital area of the body.

They all point out that, even if there is an increased risk it is very small, Ovarian Cancer Action setting the increase in risk at between 2% and 2.5%.

Yet the alleged danger of talc was enough to convince two Missouri juries that Johnson & Johnson were negligent not to award more than $125 million in compensation and punitive damages so far, with likely many more to come.

Once again medical science cannot give you a definite answer and so you must weigh the risk and make up your own minds.

I would err on the side of caution and use talc sparingly, if at all, but who am I to tell you what to do?



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