Below you’ll find answers to many of the most common questions about talcum powder and ovarian cancer.
Internal J&J documents reported and posted by Reuters suggest that “from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.”
Although an association between genital talc use and ovarian cancer has been reported for decades, internal J&J documents reveal that the company repeatedly “looked for ways to sell more Baby Powder to two key groups of longtime users: African-American and overweight women,” Reuters reported in 2019. According to an internal J&J marketing memo obtained by Reuters, the “right place” to focus was “under-developed geographical areas with hot weather, and higher AA [African American] population.”
Most medical researchers who have studied the connection agree that talc particles in the ovaries can cause inflammation and irritation, leading to the growth of malignant cells. The particles that make up talcum powder are extremely fine and studies have shown that these microscopic fibers can migrate through the vagina and Fallopian tubes into the ovaries.
Talcum powder’s primary purpose is to absorb moisture, which is why it is used worldwide by women for a variety of reasons. Talc can also be found in a variety of other products, particularly cosmetics.
Unfortunately, the symptoms of ovarian cancer are difficult to recognize and diagnose and are often misconstrued as less serious illnesses. Symptoms may include bloating, abdominal pain, changes in bladder and bowel movements, and overall fatigue.
There is no definitive medical test. In some cases, experts can look at tissue samples and pathology reports to determine if talc fibers are found in a woman’s reproductive organs. Because such techniques can only review a small series of samples, any talc particles present may be missed, or may have already dissipated.
Although there are a number of options for treating ovarian cancer, in many cases the disease has already spread throughout the abdomen and pelvic region of the body before diagnosis. More than 14,000 women in the U.S. lose their fight against ovarian cancer each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
It can often take decades to shift opinions about risk factors and causation of certain diseases, and this uncertainty about talc and ovarian cancer is to be expected. However, when medical professionals – and juries – closely examine the evidence, most are satisfied that the causation relationship exists.
Talc and asbestos, a known and deadly carcinogen, are both naturally-occurring minerals that can be often found together and comingled at mining sites around the world. While manufacturers claim to regularly test and purify talc to eliminate asbestos, the properties of the mineral make it very difficult to detect. Any exposure to asbestos, whether inhaled or applied directly, can have deadly consequences.
Researchers have found trace levels of several naturally-occurring and highly toxic metals such as lead and chromium in different brands of talcum powder products that are packaged and sold to consumers. While the levels may be low, many people view the combination of heavy metals to create an unnecessary health risk.
From the evidence presented at the previous trials, it’s clear that major corporations such as Johnson & Johnson have enjoyed considerable influence over regulatory bodies for many years. It is not unreasonable to speculate that this influence has favorably affected agencies, as well as organizations these companies fund, making it even more difficult to force changes such as proper warning labels.
There is no evidence that corn starch-based products carry any significant health risks. However, the profit margin is much smaller for corn starch-based products compared to talc, so companies have less incentive to stop making and promoting talc-based products.
While the repeated application of talc to the genital area over many years remains the most direct and best-documented exposure risk, there is a growing body of evidence pointing to the potential for asbestos contamination of talcum powder products. That evidence broadens the possible sources for the toxic effects of talc. When inhaled, asbestos has been shown to travel throughout the body through the lymphatic system, including to the ovaries.
J&J announced in May 2020 that it would discontinue sales of talc-based baby powders in the U.S. and Canada. In 2022, J&J said it would discontinue sales globally of talc-based powders as of 2023. Rather than pull products from shelves, the company said it will continue to sell existing inventory of talc powders “until it runs out.” As of 2023, some talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder products were still available for sale in some stores and online retailers.
Since October 2021, the company has made two attempts to shift its talc liabilities into an affiliated company, and take that company into bankruptcy. Both attempts have been denied by the courts. While unsuccessful, this controversial strategy did halt all talc-ovarian cancer trials in state and federal courts. At least 18 trials are scheduled to be held in 2024, subject to any further attempt by J&J to seek an injunction and bankruptcy protection, which the company is reportedly considering.