The science supporting a link between using talcum powder and ovarian cancer depends on who you ask; however, recent verdicts against Johnson & Johnson, a manufacturer of products used commonly for feminine hygiene containing talcum powder, suggest that juries tend to believe that talcum powder can cause ovarian cancer. Talcum powder is made from talc, a mineral made up mainly of the elements magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. In powder form, talc absorbs moisture and helps cut down on friction, making it useful for keeping skin dry and helping to prevent rashes. Due to these properties, talcum powder is widely used in cosmetic products such as baby powder and adult body and facial powders, as well as in a number of other consumer products. In its natural form, some talc may contain asbestos or asbestiform fibers, which may cause certain forms of cancer when made friable.

Two recent cases in St. Louis, Missouri were based on allegations that Johnson & Johnson’s non-asbestos contaminated talcum powder caused ovarian cancer in women and that such knowledge has been developing since at least 1971. The jury agreed that there is a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer and Johnson & Johnson was hit with two recent verdicts totaling $127 million dollars comprised of $10 million dollars and $5 million dollars in compensatory damages and $62 million dollars and $50 million dollars, respectively, in punitive damages in these two cases.

The first plaintiff to take her claims to court was Deane Berg, a 56-year-old resident of Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 2013. Ms. Berg’s case was the first federal talcum powder cancer lawsuit trial against Johnson & Johnson. Ms. Berg testified that she developed ovarian cancer after using Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder for 30 years. The jury found Johnson & Johnson had failed to properly warn of the ovarian risk, yet did not award this plaintiff any damages. Of note, Ms. Berg’s ovarian cancer had been in remission for six years which may have influenced the jury’s decision on damages. As to the science, Brigham and Women's Hospital obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Daniel Cramer testified to his opinion that upwards of 10,000 women a year are developing ovarian cancer in part due to their use of talcum powder. Ms. Berg’s pathologist, Dr. John Godleski, also at Brigham, testified that he had found talc particles inside Berg's ovarian tumor tissue.

Ms. Berg’s case laid the groundwork for the two recent verdicts against Johnson & Johnson. In February 2016, a jury in St. Louis, Missouri awarded $72 million dollars to the family of Jackie Fox who had died at the age of 62 from ovarian cancer allegedly caused by her use of Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder. The jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay the woman’s surviving family $10 million dollars in compensatory damages and $62 million dollars in punitive damages. In May 2016, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $5 million dollars in compensatory damages and $50 million dollars in punitive damages to plaintiff Gloria Ristesund who alleged that she used Johnson & Johnson’s talc-powder products which caused her to develop ovarian cancer. The recent verdict, which Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal, was the second straight trial loss for the company, which is facing about 1,200 lawsuits accusing it of not adequately warning consumers about its talc-based products' cancer risks.

Johnson & Johnson maintains that use of their talcum-powder products by women for feminine hygiene is safe. However, some studies have linked talcum-based products to ovarian cancer since 1971, when scientists in Wales discovered particles of talc embedded in ovarian and cervical tumors. A study published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research in June 2013 found the regular use of talcum powder could increase the risk of ovarian cancer by 20 to 30 percent. Other studies have placed the figure above 30 percent. The International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2006 classified talcum powder as a possible human carcinogen if used in the female genital area.

The debate in the medical field as to whether talcum powder can increase the risk for development of ovarian cancer goes back many decades. At trial in the St. Louis cases, plaintiffs’ counsel produced evidence that Johnson & Johnson first expressed concern in internal company documents starting in 1982 over its talcum powder cancer risks thus giving the jury the necessary information to determine that Johnson & Johnson knew, at least, that there was emerging scientific opinion linking talcum powder to ovarian cancer.

In addition to ovarian cancer, talc-related defendants are also involved in a growing number of asbestos related claims. These cases allege that exposure to asbestos contaminated talc products have results in mesothelioma, a cancer of the mesothelial cells which line the lungs (pleura), pericardium or peritoneum (abdomen). The verdicts in asbestos cases are mixed and range from defense verdicts to multiple eight-figure verdicts, including some awards of punitive damages. The talc alleged in these cases is typically either industrial, such as that contained in auto body fillers or construction products, or cosmetic, such as body and grooming powders. In the asbestos cases, the talc defendants are the owners of the talc mines, suppliers of talc as well as manufacturers of products incorporating the talc. The number of cases involving talc related defendants is increasing and many more cases are expected.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.