The Dangers of… Talcum Powder?

Talc, the main ingredient in body powders of many kinds, has come under fire for causing cancer. In late February, Johnson & Johnson, a consumer products, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices company, settled the case of a woman who died of ovarian cancer at 62 after using J & J’s body powder for over 35 years. The verdict amount of $72 million was paid to her surviving family members.

Before you dismiss this case as an extreme reaction—after all, you may be thinking, this is body powder we’re discussing—you should consider the following information.

Talc, the naturally-mined mineral that allegedly caused the victim’s ovarian cancer, is found in a number of personal products, including body powders explicitly marketed for use on babies, so such claims deserve careful evaluation. While the American Cancer Society (ACS) does not consider talc a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance), it does admit that talc in body and baby powder that directly contacts the genitals could cause ovarian cancer. A fact sheet put out by the ACS believes that a risk, however small, does in fact exist, and that more research is needed. The ACS suggests limiting the use of talcum powders, substituting cornstarch-based powders instead.

Note also that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding the inhalation of talc, though it does not specify any particular dangers in using it. Still, repeated inhalation of talc can lead to pneumoconiosis, according to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Pneumoconiosis is a class of lung diseases caused by airborne particles and includes asbestosis, silicosis, and coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (Black Lung Disease). In fact, the potential problems involved with aspirating talc is the biggest reason doctors have advised against using baby powder, going as far back as the Sixties.

In the $72 million settlement listed above, it is worth mentioning that only $10 million were for actual damages and that $62 million were for punitive damages. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant and are based on an assumption of the defendant’s recklessness, negligence, or deliberately causing harm. It took jurors only four hours to find Johnson & Johnson liable for fraud, negligence, and conspiracy. This case is the first one in the U.S. in which damages have been awarded by a jury for such claims.

To date, about 1,000 cases in Missouri and 200 in New Jersey have been filed against Johnson & Johnson, alleging that their talc-based personal products cause cancer. Needless to say, this case has stirred up renewed concerns over the dangers of talc-based personal products.

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