For more information or confidential assistance
Call 516.741.5600

Talcum Powder & Ovarian Cancer

talcumEach year, about 14,000 women in the U.S. lose their lives because of ovarian cancer. In recent years, experts have increasingly been evaluating the potential link between the application of talcum powder to the genital area and the development of ovarian cancer. This hot button issue remains controversial, with voices on both sides of the debate pointing to clinical evidence that they claim support their viewpoints. Although the possible causal relationship between talc and ovarian cancer has not been definitively proven, about 700 ovarian cancer victims or their surviving family members have filed talcum powder lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, Imerys Talc America, Inc., and the Personal Care Products Council, contending that there is an increased risk of about 35 percent of developing ovarian cancer following the genital application of talc.

Associations between talcum powder and ovarian cancer

The question of whether talcum powder causes ovarian cancer dates back to the 1970’s. Since then, numerous studies have been conducted in an attempt to resolve this issue. When considering the evidence, it’s important to note the differences between types of studies.

Epidemiological studies rely on probability and statistics to evaluate the patterns of health-related events in light of possible causes. They may be observational or experimental studies. The first case control epidemiological study on the link between talc and ovarian cancer was conducted by Dr. Daniel W. Cramer and his colleagues.

Dr. Cramer, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, testified as an expert witness during the first talcum powder trial, Deane Berg v. Johnson & Johnson. His study revealed that 42.8 percent of cases out of a total of 215 women with epithelial ovarian cancer and 215 age match controls regularly used talc powders, applied either to the perineum, or to underwear or sanitary napkins. Shortly after this study was released, Dr. Cramer was contacted by Dr. Bruce Semple of Johnson & Johnson, who tried to convince Dr. Cramer that talc was harmless.

Another report published by Dr. Cramer in 1999 hypothesized that genital application of talcum powder could be causing about 10 percent of all cases of ovarian cancer in the U.S., which would equal about 2,000 cases per year, given an average of 20,000 cases diagnosed each year.

Dr. Cramer’s study was only one of many to evaluate the possible risks of talc. There have also been at least five meta-analysis studies. This type of study is essentially a statistical technique that evaluates exposure and illness outcomes from various other studies. Two out of the five meta-analysis studies were industry-sponsored.

All of the five studies demonstrated a “significant positive association between the use of talc and ovarian cancer,” according to Dr. Cramer. One of the studies was conducted by the National Cancer Institute, which concluded that “a lifetime pattern of talc use may increase the risk for epithelial ovarian cancer but is unlikely to be the etiology for the majority of epithelial ovarian cancers.”

The possible role of asbestos

In evaluating the possible causal relationship between this commonly used hygiene product and cancer, it is necessary to consider the role asbestos may play. Health experts began to scrutinize talc in the 1970’s because, up until then, talc products were laced with asbestos. Asbestos and talc are both silicates and some asbestos naturally occurs in mined talc. Asbestos is a known carcinogen and has been linked to cancer development.

However, since the 1970’s, companies that sell talcum powder have apparently been purifying their products to remove all traces of asbestos. Johnson & Johnson has asserted that its talcum powder is “asbestos free, as confirmed by regular testing conducted since the 1970’s.” Despite this, many studies demonstrate an increased risk of ovarian cancer in asbestos-free talc, while others do not.

  • A 2009 Harvard Medical School study led by Dr. Margaret Gates concluded that women who use talcum powder around the genital area have a 40 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer.
  • A 2013 analysis published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research pooled information from eight studies to determine that talc is associated with a 20 to 30 percent increased risk of epithelial ovarian cancer.
  • A 2003 study published in the journal Anticancer Research concluded that the hygiene product increased ovarian cancer risk by about 30 percent.

Talcum powder lawsuits

Although the evidence is not definitive and J&J claims to have purified its talcum powder products, about 700 plaintiffs have filed talcum powder lawsuits against J&J and other defendants. These complaints have been brought on the basis that J&J’s assertion that its products are asbestos-free is true and that it is the talc itself that causes ovarian cancer.

The plaintiffs further allege that J&J failed to warn them of the possible risks of talcum powder.

The majority of the lawsuits are proceeding in New Jersey and in a state court in St. Louis, Missouri. Initial trial dates are anticipated in early 2016. It is expected that discussions of possible settlement deals will arise closer to the trial dates.

The recent rash of talcum powder lawsuits has come on the heels of an October 2013 verdict against Johnson & Johnson. The jury found that the company was negligent in failing to warn Deane Berg, the plaintiff, of the possible risk of ovarian cancer. Yet, Berg was not awarded damages for her medical expenses, lost wages, or pain and suffering. Berg had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006, after having regularly applied talcum powder to the genital area. The diagnosis was confusing for Berg, who had no known risk factors of ovarian cancer – until she discovered the possible association between the feminine hygiene product and the disease. After enduring rounds of chemotherapy, Berg filed the first talcum powder lawsuit against J&J in South Dakota.

  1. American Cancer Society, Talcum Powder and Cancer,

  2. Daniel W. Cramer, Opinion on the Relationship between Ovarian Cancer and Cosmetic Talc Powder Use: Causality and Relevance to the Case of Ms. Deane Berg,

  3. Salon, “Why aren’t they warning women about it?” The toxic danger in your baby powder,