The $72 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson on behalf of the family of an ovarian cancer victim has raised numerous questions pertaining to the connection of the disease and exposure to talcum powder. Here are the answers to the seven most common questions we are receiving from clients.
- “How long has talcum powder been linked to ovarian cancer?”
Scientists have suspected since the 1960s that some cases of ovarian cancer have been caused by environmental exposure. This was due, in large part, to instances of ovarian cancer being two to three times more common in the industrialized world compared to developing nations.
Initially, the primary contaminant considered by researchers was asbestos. Asbestosis and mesothelioma were bursting onto the scene of the oncological community in the 50s and 60s and were thus garnering much attention. As a result, a British team at the Welsh National School of Medicine searched for asbestos crystals when it used a new microscopic examination technique to examine tissue samples of ovarian and cervical tumors in 1971. To the team’s surprise, however, no asbestos was found. But, in 75% of the tumors, particles of talc were identified. The British team recognized that “it is impossible to incriminate talc as a primary cause [of cancer] on the preliminary observations described here, … [but] further investigations are obviously required.”
The discovery of talc during the search for asbestos was not coincidental. As a paper from the National Institutes of Health observed in 1979, “mineral talc is closely related to asbestos, and the two substances are often found together in mineral deposits.” In fact, prior to 1976, asbestos could be found in talc products sold to the public. Only in that year did the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA) revise its guidelines for talc to recommend that no sample containing asbestos reach the market.
But the medical community continued to study talc’s possible connection to ovarian cancer. In 1979, the National Cancer Institute observed that “the risk of cosmetic talc has not been fully evaluated.” Citing the previous studies referenced in this article, the NCI argued “various lines of evidence make it difficult to absolve cosmetic talc as a possible carcinogen, co-carcinogen, or promoter of malignant transformation.”
The Harvard Medical School set out to answer the question in the mid-1980s. From July 1984 to September 1987, Harvard researchers conducted a controlled study of 235 women between 18-76 years of age diagnosed with borderline or malignant epithelial ovarian cancer. 114 (48.5%) of the women were found to have been exposed to talcum powder in there perineal region. This was a rate of exposure significantly higher than that of the non-cancer control group (39.3%). The study observed that exposure to talc did not appear to be the primary cause of ovarian cancer, but that “the proportion of ovarian cancer incidence attributable to this level of talc exposure is about 10%.” “Nevertheless,” Harvard emphasized, “given the poor prognosis for ovarian cancer, any potentially harmful exposures should be avoided, particularly those with limited benefits. For this reason, we discourage the use of talc in genital hygiene, particularly as a daily habit.”
The Harvard study was published in 1989—seventeen years prior to the $72 million Johnson & Johnson verdict.
- “What do today’s studies show?”
Scientists throughout the world have continued to study the connection of talc to ovarian cancer. In 2000, the journal Epidemiology published an article that compiled results from 12 epidemiological studies of the question at that point. Of the 12, ten studies “reported at least some elevation in cancer risk among women.”
In 2013, twenty-four doctors and researchers from a variety of centers such as Harvard, Duke, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and the University of Pittsburg collaborated on a major pooling of all known studies, resulting in an analysis of over 18,000 individuals with and without ovarian cancer. The results of this study found a 20-30% increased risk of ovarian cancer with genital-powder use. The study went on to suggest that “since there are few modifiable risk factors for ovarian cancer, avoidance of genital powders may be a possible strategy to reduce ovarian cancer incidence.”
The latest analysis was published in May of 2015. The author, an epidemiologist from the University of Texas, concluded that “talc use increased ovarian cancer risk by 30–60% in almost all well‐designed studies. The Attributable Risk was 29%, meaning that elimination of talc use could protect more than one quarter or more of women who develop ovarian cancer.”
- “What type of talcum powder use is associated with higher risks of ovarian cancer?”
The greatest risk of ovarian cancer arises from the direct application of talcum powder products to the exterior of the female genitalia. Use of such powder on other areas of the body has not been connected with an increase in risk of ovarian cancer.
- “How do the talc particles reach the ovaries?”
Somewhat surprisingly, scientific studies have shown us that otherwise immobile particles can move from the vagina to the fallopian tubes within 30 to 35 minutes. Post-surgical analyses of cancerous ovarian tumors have shown the presence of talc in the tissue, sometimes even years after a hysterectomy or tubal ligation has made that journey impossible. As a result, scientists believe that the talc has the ability to transport to the ovaries relatively quickly, while a long period of latency between the talc use and the development of cancer may result.
- “How is it possible to prove that talc caused ovarian cancer?”
As noted above, talc particles can be identified in ovarian tissue with the use of a microscope. After an oophorectomy or full hysterectomy, ovarian tissue is generally preserved by healthcare providers for ten years. Analyzing that tissue for the presence of talc particles establishes what lawyers refer to as “the causal chain.”
- “Is smoking or drinking associated with ovarian cancer?”
No. Exposure to cigarettes or alcohol has not been linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
- “How can I find out if exposure to talcum powder caused my ovarian cancer?”
Our law firm is investigating many cases of ovarian cancer and their possible relationship to talcum powder products. If you would like to speak to us about your personal history, please call a Columbia SC personal injury lawyer at Chappell Smith & Arden, P.A. at 1 866-881-8623 or email us.