The Talcum Powder Cancer Scare


As I write these words on Halloween, this is not intended as another frightening moment. Just when you thought you were at least safe in your own bathroom, there comes a new reason to be scared.

In August of this year a jury ordered Johnson & Johnson, manufacturers of Johnson’s Baby Powder, to pay $417 million to Eva Echeverria for failing to warn her about the risk of using their product. This 63 year-old woman has terminal ovarian cancer and has been using this baby powder for more than 40 years. Who knew it was so dangerous?

The Scientific Evidence

There is no scientific evidence that talcum powder, or baby powder, causes cancer. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says talc, in its natural form, contains minute amounts of asbestos, a substance known to cause cancers in the lungs when inhaled. However, all talcum products used in the home in the United States have been asbestos-free since the 1970s (over 40 years ago).

Here is the statement of the ACS concerning ovarian cancer and talcum powder:

“Many studies in women have looked at the possible link between talcum powder and cancer of the ovary. Findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase. Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk. But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person’s memory of talc use many years earlier. Two prospective cohort studies, which would not have the same type of potential bias, have not found an increased risk.”


Amanda Fader, a gynecologic oncologist at Johns Hopkins University says, “The scientific body of literature is not compelling at this time to support a strong association between talcum powder and ovarian cancer, let alone to say any one specific case was associated with powder.”

Judge Grants New Trial

The dreams of trial lawyers of turning talcum powder into the next asbestos racket appear to have been squelched, according to The Wall Street Journal editorial board. They report that California Superior Court Judge Maren Nelson has granted Johnson & Johnson a new trial after their appeal of the verdict.

Judge Nelson ripped apart the plaintiff lawyers’ arguments and evidence. First, trial lawyers tried to hold Johnson & Johnson liable even though its subsidiary JJCI had manufactured the baby powder since 1967. The judge noted that the law is well established that ordinarily a holding company cannot be held liable for the acts of its wholly owned subsidiary absent evidence that the consumer unit was an agent of the company – a fact not shown by the lawyers.

Second, the judge also deemed the plaintiff’s evidence lacking. No causal link has been established between talc and ovarian cancer, as even one plaintiff expert testified. They tried to use support from an epidemiologist but the judge noted “the expert did not properly employ the methodology she espoused.” The judge also dismissed the plaintiff’s unscientific contention that the condom industry’s discontinuation of talc after 1994 demonstrates its carcinogenic risk.

Judge Nelson concluded, “The documents and testimony, granting all evidence in favor of the plaintiff do not support liability . . . much less support a finding of clear and convincing evidence that a punitive damage was appropriate.”

I guess we don’t have to accuse our mothers of child-abuse for using that baby powder on us – at least not yet.

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