Talcum Powder Causes Cancer?

talcum powder causes cancer

I am rather stunned by this news story.  Johnson and Johnson has been ordered to pay damages to a woman who claims her ovarian cancer was caused by using the firm’s talcum powder.  First off, let’s get the science out of the way.  The exact cause of any individual case of cancer simply cannot be determined with the current state of scientific knowledge.  Even if there was a link between talc and cancer, it would not be possible to say that this woman was actually killed by it. The evidence that talc causes cancer is in any case not particularly convincing even by the standards of scare stories in general.  So when the jury decided that Johnson and Johnson were responsible, they were to say the least being very original in their thinking.

It is impossible to prove a negative, so you can’t say for an absolute certainty that it is not the case that talcum powder causes cancer.  But you can’t say a great many things with absolute certainty.  There might be a shade of the colour pink that causes cancer if you look at it too often.

J&J are going to appeal, so the matter isn’t finally settled yet.  But if the judgement is upheld this is going to have huge implications for the business.  If you can get stung for millions of dollars if one of your customers gets cancer simply because you have used an ingredient that has been criticised by ill informed consumer groups, that is big.  It isn’t as if talcum powder is anything very special.  It is simply a mineral that has a nice soft feel.  It is used as a powder as we all know, but also gets pretty widespread use in all sorts of products.  There can’t be many people who haven’t been exposed to it, so anybody can file a suit for big bucks if they are diagnosed with cancer.

If the higher court upholds this judgement most firms in the business today are going to be liable.  Most big companies have used talc at least somewhere in their range.  And even if by a fluke they haven’t, there are plenty of other ingredients which are regularly accused of being linked to cancer.  Being natural didn’t help talc, so this is as big a threat to the natural product sector as the rest of the industry.  It seems inconceivable, but this ruling could radically change the nature of the products we all use.  And it won’t be for the better.  It will also presumably put up insurance premiums, so it won’t be for the cheaper either.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/24/johnson-johnson-72-millon-babuy-talcum-powder-ovarian-cancer

4 thoughts on “Talcum Powder Causes Cancer?

  1. Stephen Ko

    Colgate-Palmolive was sued for something similar, except the charge was that the talcum powder contained asbestos.

    http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/jury-finds-colgate-palmolive-talcum-powder-causes-mesothelioma-awards-13-million-300075727.html

    “In a unanimous verdict, the jury found that Colgate-Palmolive’s “Cashmere Bouquet” talcum powder was responsible for causing Judith Winkle to contract mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer caused by asbestos. This is the first verdict ever against Colgate-Palmolive for asbestos exposure from talcum powder.”

    “Evidence in the case revealed that Colgate-Palmolive made Cashmere Bouquet from the 1930s to 1995. Prior to 1985, the company sourced talc from three different mines that were documented as being contaminated with asbestos as early as the 1940s. Colgate-Palmolive’s own later testing of the talc found it to contain asbestos, but never passed this information on to either the FDA or consumers. At trial, the company denied that its product contained asbestos or was responsible for causing Judy’s illness.”

  2. Colin Post author

    Thanks for that link, I didn’t know about that case though I did know that asbestos had been an impurity historically in some talc. I hadn’t realised it was still being sold as late as 1985, and I am a bit surprised by that as I am old enough to remember that long ago. It was told to me as an old story that had been resolved. I guess the lesson there is not to make too much of what you are told.

    Court cases don’t really count as scientific evidence unfortunately, otherwise there’d be proof that witches existed. But in any case, an impurity that used to be but is no longer used in talc causing cancer is a very different story to talc causing cancer. If true, then the companies that have been using the impure material might well be liable to compensate people who have suffered as a result – though it would hardly be justified to penalise them for their actions before the link between cancer and asbestos was established in the sixties.

    On the face of it, this case opens up the possibility of just about every cosmetic company being liable for using talc – which is quite a big thing. But I will have to have a look at the details when they come out.

  3. marymary

    I’m surprised too. I didn’t realise talc was a bogeyman ingredient. I certainly wouldn’t expect a court to go along with the scaremongering.
    Asbestos is natural.

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