Johnson's Baby Powder
Bottles of Johnson & Johnson baby powder line a drugstore shelf in New York October 15, 2015. Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Talc powder has long been suspected to be linked to cancer. Researchers had conducted lab studies and studies in people, with both type of studies producing mixed results. However, a landmark court decision apparently confirms the link between ovarian cancer and two products of a major healthcare company.

On late Monday, a Missouri state jury ordered Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to pay $72 million (AUD$100 million) to the family of Jacqueline Fox from Birmingham, Alabama, who died from ovarian cancer in October 2015 at age 62. The ailment was linked to her use of two J&J talc powders – Baby Powder and Shower to Shower – which she used for feminine hygiene for over 35 years. Shower to Shower is now owned by Valeant Pharmaceuticals which is not a defendant in the lawsuit.

Shower to Shower
Shower to Shower is now owned by Valeant Pharmaceuticals which is not a defendant in the lawsuit. Shower to Shower/Walmart

The award given by the circuit court of St Louis consists of $10 million (AUD$14 million) of actual damages and $62 million (AUD$86 million) punitive damages, according to court documents and the lawyers of Fox’s family, reports Reuters. The decision is landmark and could have impact on several hundreds of similar lawsuits that J&J is facing. The plaintiffs in these other cases claim that to increase sales, the company failed to warn buyers that its talc-based products could cause cancer.

It is the first verdict by a US jury to award damage over the cancer claim. A federal jury in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, ruled in October 2013 in favour of Deana Berg, the plaintiff in a lawsuit against J&J. Berg claimed that the company’s powder products was partly responsible for her ovarian cancer, but no damages was awarded to Berg.

In awarding the Fox family the damages, the jury found J&J liable for fraud, negligence and conspiracy, according to the lawyers. Jere Beasley, one of the Fox family lawyers, says that J&J was aware of the cancer risks way back in the 1980s, but Beasley accused the healthcare giant of lying to the public and regulators.

J&J spokeswoman Carol Goodrich says that the health and safety of consumers is its highest responsibility and it is disappointed with the result of the trial. “We sympathize with the plaintiff’s family but firmly believe the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence,” she adds. notes that there are suggestions that talc powder causes ovarian cancer if the powder, when applied to the genitals or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms or condoms, travels through the vagina, uterus and fallopian tubes to the ovary. Some of the studies reported a slightly higher risk, but others showed no increase in risk.

Because the research evidence is inconclusive, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies talc power as “possibly carcinogenic (cancer causing) to humans when applied to the genital area.” Further research has been recommended, according to the Cancer Council of New South Wales.