A jury awarded a 63-year-old Los Angeles woman $417 million in damages August 21, 2017 in a suit the woman, Eve Echeverria, brought against Johnson & Johnson. Echeverria claims that the consumer goods’ company’s iconic baby powder, which she used in her genital area for 43 years, caused her stage 4 ovarian cancer.
Echeverria isn’t the first woman with ovarian cancer to sue Johnson & Johnson; the company has awarded multimillion dollar damages to at least three other women in the past 15 months, while thousands of other women await the results of their respective lawsuits.
What’s going on? Does using Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder increase your risk of ovarian cancer?
Lawsuits vs. science
The casual reader may assume that where there’s smoke there’s fire, and if women are winning lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, there must be something to their claims. But at least to this point, there simply isn’t the scientific data to indisputably prove a link between talcum powder (a base ingredient in some formulations of Johnson’s baby powder) and ovarian cancer.
Absestos is a potential culprit — but not since the 1970s
Talcum powder made with asbestos has been ruled a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organization. But talcum powder hasn’t been made with asbestos since the 1970s; what about current formulations?
Data is inconclusive
The working theory is that particles of talc can make their way from a woman’s genital area to her ovaries, where they cause inflammation that can potentially lead to cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, lab studies and human studies dating back to the 1970s offer mixed results.
Some lab studies seem to show a potential link, with talc leading to the formation of tumors in animals; other studies show no link.
Human studies show the same inconclusive results. While IARC officials feel there’s enough evidence to term the use of talcum powder in the genital area as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” two prospective cohort studies have shown no increased risk of ovarian cancer in talcum-powder users. (Prospective cohort studies follow a certain group of initially healthy people over the course of many years to see what illnesses they develop, and then to try to discern a link between those illnesses and environmental or lifestyle factors.)
Should you stop using talcum powder?
If you’re a devoted user of talcum powder, there’s a simple solution: read your labels. Some body powders are based on talcum powder; some on cornstarch. Find and use a body powder based on cornstarch, which hasn’t yet raised any red flags as a potential carcinogen.
And in the meantime, if you’ve used talcum powder in your genital area for many years (especially if such use stretches back into the 1970s), be sure you know the potential warning signs of ovarian cancer — just in case.
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PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.