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The Big Lie: Johnson & Johnson, Talc, and Ovarian Cancer


In the aftermath of verdicts of $72 million and $55 million on behalf of ovarian cancer victims, Johnson & Johnson is fighting back by releasing a public statement which misleads women about the connection between perineal use of talcum powder and ovarian cancer. Here, we dissect the pharmaceutical giant’s claims to bring you the truth.

J&J Claim No. 1: “When concerns about an association between talc and ovarian cancer were first raised in the early 1980s, Johnson and Johnson took them very seriously and did the things you expect from a company you trust…”

Concerns about talc and ovarian cancer were not “first raised in the early 1980s.” In fact, as Dr. Stephen A. Narod of Toronto’s Women’s College Institute recently noted, “[i]nterest in a possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer risk dates back to the 1960s when the public was concerned about asbestos contamination in talc.”[1] British researchers first identified talc particles in ovarian cancer tumors in 1971.[2]

The first published epidemiological study finding a statistically significant link between talc exposure and ovarian cancer was published in the American Cancer Society’s journal, Cancer, in July of 1982.[3] The author of the study, Dr. Daniel Cramer, later recalled Johnson & Johnson’s reaction to his research.

After this publication, I was contacted by Dr. Bruce Semple of Johnson and Johnson and we met in Boston in late 1982 or early 193. My recollection of the meeting was that Dr. Semple spent his time trying to convince me that talc use was a harmless habit, while I spent my time trying to persuade him to consider the possibility that my study could be correct and that women should be advised of this potential risk of talc. I don’t recall further meetings or communications with him.[4]

The specific “things you expect from a company you trust,” according to Johnson & Johnson, were as follows.

J&J Claim No. 2:

  • “Testing to ensure that the talc in JOHNSON’S®Baby Powder meets the highest Quality standards (US Pharmacopeia)”
  • “Engaging with the FDA, regulatory agencies, and governments around the world”
  • “Monitoring studies and all available information examining the safety of talc”
  • “Talking with independent consultants from outside our company about their point of view on the safety of talc.”

The “highest quality standards” for Baby Powder had nothing to do with the 1982 study linking talc to ovarian cancer, but rather had been implemented in 1976 when it was discovered that cosmetic talcum powder often contained measurable quantities of asbestos. After implementing those standards, Johnson & Johnson then began retaining the consultants of “independent consultants” such as Dr. Alfred P. Wehner to conduct studies on the asbestos content within its talcum powder.[5] Successful studies were published and touted by Johnson & Johnson as evidence of the safety of its products.

As more studies in the 1980s and early 90s continued to link talc (rather than asbestos) to ovarian cancer, however, Johnson & Johnson began to fear regulatory action against its Baby Powder and other talc-based products. As a result, the company helped form the “Talc Interested Parties Task Force,” which included representatives from other cosmetics companies. The Task Force, during the 90s, successfully staved off government intervention but, in doing so, Johnson & Johnson alienated some of its own so-called “independent consultants.” In 1997, Dr. Alfred P. Wehner complained to Johnson & Johnson that the Task Force was ignoring increasing scientific evidence of the connection between talc and ovarian cancer.

At that time (1994) there had been about 9 studies (more by now) published in the open literature that did show a statistically significant association between hygienic talc use and ovarian cancer. Anybody who denies this risks that the talc industry will be perceived by the public like it perceives the cigarette industry: denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.[6]

But Dr. Wehner’s warnings fell on deaf ears.

J&J Claim No. 3: “After 30 years of studies by medical experts around the world, science, research and clinical evidence continues to support the safety of cosmetic talc. Two widely-accepted, very large studies which followed women over a period of time — the Nurses’ Health Study by the Harvard School of Public Health published in 2009 and the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Cohort by the U.S. National Institutes of Health published in 2014 – found no association between talc and ovarian cancer. We also know that some epidemiology studies have reported an association between talc and ovarian cancer.”

Johnson and Johnson, of course, has known about all of the studies which have linked ovarian cancer to talcum powder exposure. In fact, in response to the 1982 Cramer study, Johnson and Johnson was quoted in the New York Times on August 12, 1982 and labeled the study’s results “inconclusive.” Said the Johnson & Johnson spokesperson,

We agree more study is needed, and we are going to conduct appropriate new studies. We feel there is a vast amount of published research on talc in humans and animals that has shown no tendency of pure cosmetic-grade talc to cause cancer.”[7]

As shown above, this continues to be Johnson and Johnson’s assertion 34 years later.

Johnson and Johnson does correctly cite two studies conducted in 2009 and 2014 which found no association between talc and ovarian cancer. In doing so, however, it attempts to minimize the existence of “some epidemiology studies” that continue to demonstrate the association. In fact, as of May of 2015, thirty-one studies had been conducted on the topic revealing “increased ovarian cancer risk by 30-60% in almost all well-designed studies.” According to Dr. Roberta Ness, “elimination of talc use could protect more than one quarter or more of women who develop ovarian cancer.”[8] Needless to say, that finding is completely inconsistent with Johnson and Johnson’s present insistence that “evidence continues to support the safety of cosmetic talc.”

J&J Claim No. 4: “We continue to believe in the safety of JOHNSON’S®Baby Powder containing talc and we trust our consumers to make their own decisions – which are why we want to provide the scientific support for the safety of talc. Our goal is always to meet our consumer’s needs and we are fortunate to have had this opportunity for more than 130 years.”

This final statement from Johnson and Johnson is amazingly contradictory. One would think, if the company truly trusted its “customers to make their own decisions” it would disclose all of the relevant data pertaining to the connection of talc exposure and ovarian cancer. But Johnson and Johnson continues to deny any connection whatsoever, just as it did in August of 1982.

Meanwhile, epidemiological evidence continues to mount against Johnson & Johnson with a May 2016 study from Duke University reporting a “significant association” between perineal use of talcum powder and elevated risks of ovarian cancer. As Dr. Joellen Schildkraut, the study’s primary author, told Reuters in a recent interview: “I was a cynic until these recent studies came out. As you look across all these studies, I would say, why use it? It’s an avoidable risk for ovarian cancer,” she said.[9]

Why, indeed.

Our law firm is investigating many cases of ovarian cancer across the State of South Carolina. If you would like to speak to a Columbia SC personal injury lawyer at Chappell Smith & Arden, P.A. about your potential case, please call us at 1 866-881-8623 or contact us online.


[1] S.A. Narod, “Talc and Ovarian Cancer,” Gynecologic Oncology, Vol. 141, Issue 3 at 410 (June 2016).

[2] W.J. Henderson, C.F.A. Joslin, A.C. Turnbull, and K. Griffiths, “Talc and Carcinoma of the Ovary and Cervix,” British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vol. 78, Issue 3 at 266 (March 1971).

[3] Daniel W. Cramer, “Ovarian Cancer and Talc: A Case-Control Study,” Cancer, Vol. 50 at 376 (July 15, 1982).

[4] Dkt. 171-2 at 4, Berg v. Johnson & Johnson, et al., 4:09-cv-04179 (D.S.D.), Expert report of Daniel W. Cramer, MD

[5] A.P. Wehner, G.M. Zwicker, W.C. Cannon, C.R. Watkin, and W.W. Carlton, “Inhalataion of Talc Baby Powder by Hamsters,” Food and Cosmetics Toxicology, Volume 15, Issue 2 at 126 (1977).

[6] Letter from Alfred P. Wehner to Michael R. Chudkowski (Sept. 17, 1997)(Plaintiff’s Exhibit #111, Berg v. Johnson & Johnson, et al., on file with U.S. District Court for District of South Dakota).

[7] Author unknown, “Talcum Company Calls Study on Cancer Link Inconclusive,” New York Times, August 12, 1982.

[8] Ness, R., “Does Talc Exposure Cause Ovarian Cancer?” International Journal of Gynecological Cancer,  Vol. 25, Supp. 1 (May 20150.

[9] See (last viewed July 5, 2016).

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