The Potentially Lethal Risk of a ‘Gentle’ Powder

Talcum powder is a common grooming product for women and it’s often used in baby care as well. But disturbing reports of its possible association with ovarian cancer went largely unnoticed for years. The investigative news site FairWarning.org recently explained how such a seemingly benign personal product threatened so many people.

Eight years ago, Deane Berg learned that she had stage III ovarian cancer, and a poor prognosis. Berg was a medical professional, a physician’s assistant who studied the risk factors for ovarian cancer, and found only one that could apply to her: regular use of talcum powder for feminine hygiene.

“Berg was stunned to learn that since the early 1980s” according to FairWarning, “a slew of studies had found that women who regularly used talc powder for feminine hygiene had higher than average rates of ovarian cancer. Yet the evidence – which fell short of proving causation – was mostly confined to medical journals and had barely made a blip on the public radar.”

Products including Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower were marketed heavily to women. “A sprinkle a day keeps odor away,” the ads said. “Your body perspires in more places than just under your arms.”

Berg wondered how a product meant for babies could be dangerous, and why women weren’t warned.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 20,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year; more than 14,000 die from it.

“Studies showing a higher rate of the disease with talc use,” said FairWarning, generally “found an increased risk of about 35%.”

Talc is a soft mineral with many industrial and consumer product uses. It’s found in paint, paper, rubber, cosmetics, roofing and ceramic materials; it’s a food additive and a filler in capsules and pills.

Talc often is interlaced with other minerals, including asbestos, so potential danger could be due to impurities, rather than talc itself. Some talc miners and factory workers who use talc have gotten sick from asbestos exposure.

So proving a talc-cancer risk is tricky.

Still, after undergoing chemotherapy, Berg sued J&J. The verdict in 2013, FairWarning explained, “enabled both sides to declare victory.” The jury found J&J guilty of negligence for failing to warn of the risk of ovarian cancer, but Berg received no monetary damages.

But the case increased visibility about the issue, and since Berg’s complaint, claims have been brought for about 700 ovarian cancer victims or their survivors over their sickness, ostensibly because of exposure to talc powder.

The defendants say that statistical associations between talc use and ovarian cancer are weak, and could result from biased studies. We’ve discussed the difference between an association and a cause, which the talcum powder manufacturers also lean on. They claim nothing proves that talc particles can pass through the genital tract to the ovaries, or if they did, that they’re responsible for malignant growths. Because no causal link can be proved, they argue, label warnings are not necessary.

Lawsuits also accuse J&J of not taking the precaution of replacing talc with cornstarch, which has similar skin-soothing properties but is not associated with health risks. The first trials are scheduled for early 2016.

Suspicions about a talc-ovarian cancer link have endured since 1971, when British researchers analyzed 13 ovarian tumors and found talc particles deeply embedded in 10. In 1982, the journal Cancer published the first study showing a statistical link between genital talc use and ovarian cancer, after which lead author Dr. Daniel Cramer, a gynecologist and Harvard Medical School professor, tried to persuade J&J that women should be advised of the potential risk.

About 20 epidemiological studies have found increased rates of ovarian cancer risk among women who use talc for hygiene purposes.

In 1994, the Cancer Prevention Coalition, an advocacy group, asked the FDA to require warnings against talc use for genital hygiene, but the feds declined, claiming a lack of evidence, and in 2005, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program ruled that existing data were insufficient to list talc as a cancer-causing agent.

Tell that to Deane Berg, who lost months of work time and suffered permanent hearing loss and numbness in her hands and feet from chemotherapy, not to mention the endless fear of her cancer coming back.

The jury is still out on a talc-cancer risk.

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