Safe enough for a Baby, but Deadly for an Adult

Johnson and Johnson baby powder is now the focus of more than 1000 lawsuits alleging a link to ovarian cancer

What could be more innocent than a baby? Images of babies bring us emotionally to a place of innocence and safety. An infant wrapped in a mother's arms is one of the most enduring images in art. And advertising. Most people harbor warm feelings for their children and babies in general. What harm could come from a baby, the most helpless of individuals?

While babies may be innocent, virtually everything else carries some degree of threat or at least risk. Take baby powder, for instance. What could be more harmless? It has been manufactured and marketed for more than 100 years, has been patted on millions of babies to treat diaper rash over that time, all with no risk or injury. Or has it?

A recent case involving the death of a woman from ovarian cancer has raised questions of a link between baby powder and cancer. Her family was awarded $72 million for her death, and there are now more than 1,000 women with ovarian cancer who are suing Johnson & Johnson for failing to warn of the potential risk. This case illustrates the difficulty in attributing the effect to a cause when there is little research and an unclear and confusing record.

Cancer link suspected in the 1970s

Research from the early 1970s first noted the presence of talc grains in cancer tumors in the ovaries of some women in the 1970s. There was no mechanism showing the causative effect of this talc as the source of cancer. However, other studies found an additional correlation.

Women who applied the baby powder to their genital area regularly had a statistical correlation with ovarian cancer. J&J have aggressively pushed back on the suggestion that there is a link, but that may be as much due to baby powder as the company's signature product as it does with the science.

No data does not mean safe

The problem with many consumer goods is that they are presumed safe. Because baby powder is a cosmetic, it has never gone through any type of tests to assure its safety. It has seemed safe since the 1890s, and this has meant there was little incentive for researchers to study it.

There have been studies that have shown no link, and others that appear to show a connection to cancer. This means defense attorneys can use the studies that make the product appear innocent to confuse juries, somewhat in the manner of a Sideshow exhibitor using shells to hide a pea from an unwary mark.

As one expert who testified for the woman who died of ovarian cancer noted, it is important to pay attention to the studies of women who had regular perineal usage of talc and used it for a long duration.

Women who used baby powder regularly had a 1 in 53 chance of developing the cancer. For women in general, it is 1 in 70. And ovarian cancer is a severely malignant cancer, causing the deaths of 14,000 women annually.

Cornstarch instead of talc?

When the first indicators of a connection with ovarian cancer appeared, J&J could have reformulated its baby powder to use cornstarch, which has not been found to be associated with any ill health effects, and which other manufacturers have chosen to do.

Instead, it appears that some within the talc industry went on the offensive, looking to find scientists who would produce studies showing that the product was safe. This behavior carries echoes of the cigarette industry, which funded "studies" that suggested there was no link between cancer and smoking, and then used that research as part of a decade's long campaign of misinformation to protect their billion-dollar industry.

Should J&J warn women?

Because the science is unclear, many women argue that J&J should provide a warning that long-term perineal use of baby powder has been shown to have a statistical link to the occurrence of ovarian cancer.

The company maintains there is no connection. They claim the science is on their side. As more lawsuits are filed, it is likely more research will be done. If researchers should find a causative link beyond the statistical correlation, it is likely the company would be overwhelmed by jury verdicts.

If you have been a long-term user of Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder, you should have your doctor keep a close watch for any hints of ovarian cancer. If you have used talc product and have developed ovarian cancer, you should speak with an attorney.