Despite renewed concerns about a possible connection between talc and ovarian cancer, Johnson & Johnson stands by its assertion that JOHNSON’S® baby powder is safe for women to use genitally. (Photo: Austin Kirk, Flickr CC BY 2.0)
A jury recently awarded $72 million to the family of Jacqueline Fox, who died from ovarian cancer in October and had used Johnson & Johnson’s® Baby Powder and Shower to Shower® talc-based products genitally for decades. Johnson & Johnson had dismissed any link between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer and continued to market talcum powder to women for personal hygiene. Bloomberg reporter Susan Berfield tells host Steve Curwood why the jury found the company at fault and what’s known about the risk using talcum powder may pose to women.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Baby powder sounds perfectly safe. But last year we covered a danger that took us by surprise – the increased risk of ovarian cancer that talcum powder may pose to women who use it for personal hygiene. Johnson & Johnson marketed talc under its iconic brand Baby Powder, and at the time, numerous lawsuits had accused the company of knowing there was a risk, yet failing to disclose it to customers. Now one of those lawsuits has resulted in a finding of liability and an order for Johnson & Johnson to pay $72 million to the family of Jacqueline Fox, a daily user of its baby powder and talc-based Shower to Shower who died from ovarian cancer last October. Bloomberg reporter Susan Berfield wrote about this case and the increased scrutiny of Johnson & Johnson over baby powder, and joins me now. Susan, welcome to Living on Earth.
BERFIELD: Thanks so much for having me on.
CURWOOD: First, what attracted you to this story?
BERFIELD: I saw the news in February that a jury in St. Louis had awarded the family of the woman who ha died of ovarian cancer $72 million because there was a suspected link between Johnson & Johnson baby powder and her cancer, and I thought, “baby powder, it seems like a pretty harmless product,” and it was very intriguing to me that there was science apparently going back decades that most of us didn't know about so I started a look into it.
CURWOOD: Well, talk to me about this case, the Jacqueline Fox case. Why do you think the jury decided that Johnson & Johnson was at fault and awarded her such substantial, or rather her estate, such substantial damages?
BERFIELD: Well I think Jacqueline Fox was a very sympathetic plaintiff for the jury. She testified before she died that her mother had taught her to use baby powder, that she used it every day for her adult life, right up until the time that she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and what her lawyers had been able to show the jury is that going back really for decades Johnson & Johnson was aware that there was science that showed an association between long-term use of baby powder and ovarian cancer. And we should mention this is using baby powder genitaly. Johnson & Johnson had considered it to be more of a public relations problem than anything else. They didn't consider the science to be valid, but I think the jury was persuaded that Johnson & Johnson had been hiding something and that they knew of the risk, they were covering it up and that they were potentially endangering some of their most loyal customers.
CURWOOD: And how did Johnson & Johnson market baby powder to adult women?
BERFIELD: Right. So it is called baby powder. It is an important part of their baby care business and it was one of the original consumer products that Johnson & Johnson sold. It's been on the market for about 100 years and over time they realized I think that women were starting to use it, and so they shifted their advertising pretty early on, but then more dramatically in the ’60s with a variety of ads that kind of suggested if you want to feel clean and fresh, you could just kind of snatch the powder away from your baby and they specifically began targeting black and Hispanic women who they found were some of the most loyal customers. You know as overall sales of baby powder started to slow they began to look at ways in which they could sell more to their best customers. Now, you know today, and maybe even then, that sounds terrible, that they was suspicious that there could be some problem and at the same time they were increasing marketing. We saw a memo where they suggested that they should go to black churches, that they should maybe see if Aretha Franklin or Patti LaBelle would be spokespersons, and of course, neither of them agreed to that. So, they were making a very determined effort.
CURWOOD: So, at the end of the day, how significant is the risk of talc used genitally by women and a possible link to ovarian cancer?
BERFIELD: So, ovarian cancer itself is not among the most common cancers for women, but it is among the most deadly. Part of that is because it's often not detected early. So, though the odds are about 1 in 70 for most women, there have been studies that show long-term use could make those odds worse to about 1 in 53. The scientist for the plaintiffs testified that it's a significant statistical increase. On the other hand, the odds are still good that as a woman you will not be getting ovarian cancer.
CURWOOD: Why was it permissible for Johnson & Johnson to sell something which apparently had a link to ovarian cancer if they were concerned about these reports that it had this link?
BERFIELD: Yeah well, I think the science is inconsistent, and what Johnson & Johnson argues and what many groups, government groups and other studies believe is that the data that these studies have relied upon is a little iffy, there could be some bias and that the link, the statistical link is weak. There have been groups that have looked at the studies broadly and have come to that conclusion. Johnson & Johnson stands by the safety of talc. At the same time there was a ruling in 2005 by the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) which found after reviewing all of the studies that there was a possible link and that forced Johnson & Johnson's supplier to put a warning label on the talc that it supplied to Johnson & Johnson, but Johnson & Johnson still didn't feel that the evidence warranted passing on that warning to consumers.
CURWOOD: Wait a second. You're saying when Johnson bought the talc from their supplier, it had a label saying, “there’s possible risk of cancer here”, but Johnson & Johnson decided not to put that label on what went to the public.
BERFIELD: Yes, so that I think was pretty persuasive for the jurors when they heard that.
CURWOOD: So why was it up to Johnson & Johnson to decide whether or not to put a warning on baby powder labels of this possible risk of ovarian cancer?
BERFIELD: Right. Cosmetics are mostly unregulated. The Food and Drug Administration doesn't really have the authority over cosmetics. That is a law that goes back to the 1930s, and it's also one that a lot of consumer groups, as well as members of Congress, are trying to update to give the FDA more authority, hopefully more funding, to require some additional safety precautions by the big cosmetics companies. But right now there's not very much, you know it's self-regulating.
CURWOOD: As I understand it Johnson & Johnson also sells a cornstarch only baby powder, and apparently there's no concern about cornstarch being linked to ovarian cancer. Why wouldn't the company simply switch over entirely to cornstarch?
BERFIELD: It is a really good question that I asked and didn't get an answer but what I could deduce is that they may have some concerns about how well cornstarch works to do what baby powder is supposed to do, which is keep babies dry and make them smell clean and fresh. That's what they’ve said that it doesn't quite measure up, but in many other cases in recent years Johnson & Johnson has yielded to consumer concern about chemicals in baby products in particular. They have made pledges to remove the formaldehyde from baby shampoo, phthalates, parabens, and other chemicals from their products, and in those cases they've stated is that we believe those products are safe or we are using them in amounts that are safe, but we also understand that consumers have concern and we want consumers to have peace of mind so we're removing these. And it is a little hard from the outside to understand why Johnson & Johnson wouldn't just switch over to the product that it already sells, but I think at this point Johnson & Johnson is tied up in a lot of litigation over this. There have been two cases that have gone to trial. There's a third one that's underway, but there's probably about 1,200 more and I think faced with that they're making some different calculations.
CURWOOD: In 2015 we reported on a lawsuit that Deane Berg won against Johnson & Johnson. The company was found liable for not warning the risk of ovarian cancer, but there were no damages awarded. What you make of the fact that Jacqueline Fox's family in contrast was awarded $72 million yet Berg was awarded nothing?
BERFIELD: I think it speaks to the variation among juries really. They saw mostly the same evidence, and there's another important distinction between the two cases and that is that Deane Berg is alive, Jacqueline Fox died just in the months before the trial began. I think Jacqueline Fox in general was a very sympathetic plaintiff because she had used it so long because she had died. She was black and the jury heard the evidence that we spoke about before in terms of Johnson & Johnson marketing it to black women, and I think all of that factored into their decision to award to $72 million judgment.
CURWOOD: Susan Berfield is a reporter with Bloomberg BusinessWeek in New York City. Thanks so much, Susan.
BERFIELD: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: Johnson and Johnson says it was disappointed by the ruling, and that it firmly believes the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence. Their full statement is on our website, LOE.org.
Johnson & Johnson statement on Jacqueline Fox verdict:
“The jury decision in the Fox trial goes against decades of sound science proving the safety of talc as a cosmetic ingredient in multiple products, and while we sympathize with the family of the plaintiff, we strongly disagree with the outcome and are in the process of appealing the verdict. The overwhelming body of scientific research and clinical evidence supports the safety of cosmetic talc.”
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