Should we stop using baby powder? The experts weigh in

A CALIFORNIA jury on Monday ordered drugmaker Johnson & Johnson to pay $US417 million ($525 million) to a woman who claimed she developed terminal ovarian cancer after using the company’s talc-based products.
The case was one of thousands of lawsuits brought nationwide alleging the company failed to warn consumers of the risk of cancer from talc in its products.
The jury made the award, which included $US347 million (($437 million) dollars in punitive damages, to Eva Echeverria after she filed suit in July of last year, a representative of the Los Angeles Superior Court told AFP.
Echeverria, 63, developed the disease after decades of using Johnson & Johnson talc-based powders for feminine hygiene, according to media accounts.
In a statement, Johnson & Johnson said it would lodge an appeal.
“We will appeal today’s verdict because we are guided by the science, which supports the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder,” company spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said in a statement.
She cited the editorial board of the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query, which wrote in April that the “weight of evidence does not support” the existence of a link between ovarian cancer and exposure of the genital region to talc.
So far, juries in St. Louis, Missouri have also awarded damages against Johnson & Johnson totalling more than $US307 million dollars in similar talc cases.
So should we stop using talcum powder on our children?
Not necessarily, according to Terry Slevin, the Cancer Council’s Occupational and Environmental Cancer Risk Committee chairperson.
“If parents are gaining what they believe is benefits for their child and even themselves, then this case in the USA shouldn’t make them feel bad about continuing to use that product,” he tells Kidspot.
Mr Slevin advises parents to go with their gut instinct.
“If however they have any concern about using it, well then they can stop using it and there are other ways they can deal with wet nappies and those kinds of problems,” he says.
Campaign to eliminate ingredients
The company previously has been targeted by health and consumer groups over possibly harmful ingredients in items including its iconic Johnson’s No More Tears baby shampoo.
In May 2009, a coalition of groups called the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics began pushing Johnson & Johnson to eliminate questionable ingredients from its baby and adult personal care products.
After three years of petitions, negative publicity and a boycott threat, the company agreed in 2012 to eliminate the ingredients 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, both considered probable human carcinogens, from all products by 2015.
At trial, Jackie’s lawyers introduced into evidence a September 1997 internal memo from a Johnson & Johnson medical consultant.
The memo suggested that “anybody who denies (the) risks” between hygienic talc use and ovarian cancer will be publicly perceived in the same light as those who denied a link between smoking cigarettes and cancer.
Talc is naturally occurring, mined from the soil and composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen.
It’s widely used in cosmetics and personal care products, such as talcum powder, to absorb moisture, prevent caking and improve the product’s feel.
The jury is still out
But Mr Slevin was quick to point out that although the jury came to a decision on this particular occasion — the jury was still well and truly out in the medical world in regards to whether talcum powder causes ovarian cancer.
“Does the court decision therefore mean that everybody should stop wearing talc in Australia because there’s proved connection between the two? In a scientific sense — no it doesn’t mean that,” he says.
“If people believe there is a benefit to using talc on their baby or themselves then they can do so knowing a connection hasn’t been proven.”
Mr Slevin says in a perfect world we would know what is the cause of every cancer but this is not certainly not currently the case.
“We are not clear on the causes of ovarian cancer. Talc around the vagina and the anus have been suspected to contribute to ovarian cancer but the evidence isn’t consistent by any means,” he says.
“It’s listed as a possible cause in cancer by the International Agency for Cancer Research but that’s a long way from being proof that there is a connection between the two.”
The Australian Cancer Council’s stance
The Australian Cancer Council states on its website that the current evidence is inconsistent and insufficient to conclude that the use of talcum powder on the external genitalia increases the risk of cancer, specifically ovarian cancer.
“Although many studies have looked for a possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer, their results are inconsistent. In 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer looked at all the available evidence and concluded that talcum powder ‘possibly’ causes cancer in people. This is one of their lowest ratings — it means that the evidence is weak and inconsistent, but that we cannot rule out a risk.
“Several studies have suggested that using talcum powder increases the risk of ovarian cancer by 30 to 60 per cent. However, these studies interviewed women who already had ovarian cancer and asked them to remember whether they used talcum powder a long time ago. Their memories might not have been accurate, and they might have mistakenly thought they used more talc than they did in an effort to explain their cancer.
“Scientists can avoid these problems by running cohort studies, which follow healthy women over time to see if the talcum powder users are more likely to develop cancer. One such study has been done, and it found no link.
“There are other reasons to doubt a link between talcum powder and cancer. Studies have generally shown that the risk of ovarian cancer does not go up the more talc women use — you would expect it to do so if the two were truly linked.”


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