Simply put: Why a popular brand of baby powder is in trouble — again

A US court has ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $ 72 million in damages for an ovarian cancer death linked to the use of its baby powder. It’s a product widely used in India too — does it cause cancer?

Written by Sanghamitra Mazumdar | Published: February 29, 2016 1:10:01 am
Jacqueline Fox and her son Marvin Salter are seen in this undated family photo released on February 24. Fox died last year of ovarian cancer. (Source: Reuters) Jacqueline Fox and her son Marvin Salter are seen in this undated family photo released on February 24. Fox died last year of ovarian cancer. (Source: Reuters)

What’s the controversy about Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder, used widely by mothers in countries around the world?

A US court last week ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $ 72 million in damages to the family of a woman whose death from ovarian cancer was linked to her prolonged use of the powder. Well over 1,000 people have filed similar lawsuits. Reuters reported that Jacqueline Fox of Alabama had used the baby powder for feminine hygiene for over 35 years, before being diagnosed three years ago with ovarian cancer. She died in October 2015 at the age of 62. The family lawyer was quoted as saying Johnson & Johnson “knew as far back as the 1980s of the risk”, but continued “lying to the public, lying to the regulatory agencies”.

What does talcum powder contain?

It is made from talc, which is a mineral made up mainly of magnesium, silicon and oxygen. It absorbs moisture well; as a result, it keeps skin dry and prevents rashes. J&J claims there is nothing wrong with its product. But the widely reported case has left people, especially parents of infants, worried. The product is widely used in India for babies who wear diapers. Concerns had prompted doctors in the US many years ago to advise against the use of talcum powder when diapering babies.

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So, does talcum powder cause cancer?

Though some studies have suggested a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer, scientists are yet to reach a definite answer. Some talc, in its natural form, contains asbestos, and the American Cancer Society says it is important to distinguish between talc that contains asbestos, and talc that is asbestos-free, adding that “talc that has asbestos is generally accepted as being able to cause cancer if it is inhaled”. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organisation, classifies talc that contains asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans”, and says that perineal (genital) use of talc-based body powder could be “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

Studies have looked at a possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer, and the findings have been mixed. Some studies have suggested that talcum powder might cause cancer in the ovaries if the powder particles, applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms, or condoms, were to travel through the fallopian tubes to the ovary, says the American Cancer Society.

No increased risk of lung cancer has been, however, reported with the use of cosmetic talcum powder. Talc use has also not been strongly linked to other cancers, says the American Cancer Society. In sum, while there is no clear answer yet on a talc-cancer link, those with concerns may avoid them or limit their use, experts say. An alternative is to use cornstarch-based cosmetic products.

What does J& J have to say?

This isn’t the first time the baby products major has landed in a controversy over safety issues.

In October 2013, a US jury found that use of J&J’s body powder was a factor in plaintiff Deane Berg developing ovarian cancer. It did not, however, award damages in that case. Some years earlier, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a non-profit US watchdog group, had alleged after a round of laboratory tests that J&J’s baby shampoo contained the carcinogen formaldehyde, forcing the company to pledge to eliminate toxic chemicals from all its baby products.

In 2013, J&J lost the licence to produce baby powder at its Mulund plant in Mumbai. The Indian Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered the filing of a case after it found that the baby powder products were sterilised by ethylene oxide, labelled as an irritant and a cancer-causing component. The Bombay High Court, however, allowed the company to subsequently resume production at the plant.

After the case in Missouri, US, last week, J&J said in a statement that it has “no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers… but firmly believe(s) the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence”, Reuters reported. In an email sent to The Indian Express, a J&J India spokesperson said, “We’ve been replying with evidence of the science that ensures safety. Now we have to go beyond science and be responsive to our consumers because it’s really about their peace of mind.”

What should consumers do now?

It really depends on individuals and couples with babies, and the advice their doctors give them. For those who feel the need to use talcum powder, many experts seem to believe it is okay as long as the baby does not breathe it in. Other commonsense tips that paeditricians have include not sprinkling or using a puff to apply the powder, which might throw particles in the air — and to rather use hands to dab the baby; not to apply the powder on the face; and to apply the powder only on dry skin.

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