A new wave of lawsuits alleging an association between ovarian cancer and the use of talcum powder for feminine hygiene purposes – a claim that many believe is based on questionable science – has hit an all-time high. Last week, a Los Angeles jury returned a verdict against Johnson & Johnson in the amount of $417 million ($70 million in compensatory damages, $347 million in punitive damages), finding that there was a connection between Plaintiff Eva Echeverria’s ovarian cancer and Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder product. Plaintiff, a California resident, claimed she developed ovarian cancer as a result of her use of Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder over many years, and alleged that Johnson & Johnson had internal knowledge for decades of scientific studies that demonstrated that the use of talc could cause cancer.
In support of this allegation, Plaintiff’s lawyers presented to the jury a 1982 study suggesting that women who used baby powder – which is mainly comprised of talc – were at a 92% increased risk for ovarian cancer. Plaintiff’s lawyers also claimed that the lead researcher for that study advised Johnson & Johnson about the study, and suggested that the company should place a warning label on their product, but Johnson & Johnson refused. In its defense, Johnson & Johnson took issue with the 1982 study, and argued that talc is inherently safe, analogizing talc to red meat and alcohol – neither of which require warnings.
Much of the controversy surrounding this new litigation stems from the science lawyers representing plaintiffs are using to support their claims. Johnson & Johnson argued during trial that the scientific studies on which Plaintiff relied upon are flawed and “made-for-litigation.” Specifically, many studies supporting the association between ovarian cancer and talc are based on interviews conducted on women already diagnosed with ovarian cancer, asking them to remember whether they ever used talcum powder; accordingly, such studies run the risk of promoting inaccurate recollection.
Epidemiologist Jack Siemiatycki, who testified on behalf of Plaintiffs, stated that it is “more likely than not that talc can cause ovarian cancer.” Additionally, Laura Plunkett, a pharmacologist and toxicologist hired by Plaintiffs, opined that talc is toxic, and when used on a woman’s lower extremities, can cause ovarian cancer by migrating into the ovaries and causing chronic inflammation, which worsens even from small applications over long periods of time.
Johnson & Johnson argued that Plaintiff’s experts base their assertions on unreliable studies, citing to a 2000 cohort study by researchers at Harvard University, in which they concluded that there was “no overall association” between talc and “epithelial ovarian cancer.” In that study, out of the 78,630 women that stated they used talcum powder products, 307 of them were eventually diagnosed with ovarian cancer. While the study did state that there was a “modest elevation in risk” for one variety of the disease – invasive serous ovarian cancer – the report concludes that the “results provide little support for any substantial association between perineal talc use and ovarian cancer risk overall.”
This is the first ovarian cancer talc trial verdict returned against Johnson & Johnson in a state court outside of Missouri, and by far the largest. Johnson & Johnson has previously been hit with over $300 million in verdicts among several lawsuits in Missouri, however, Johnson & Johnson has also obtained summary judgments in two cases filed in New Jersey state court based on the same arguments made in Echeverria’s case – namely, that there is not sufficient scientific proof to establish the connection between talc and ovarian cancer. In fact, in Echeverria’s case, the court granted the talc supplier’s motion for summary judgment, finding that talc is indeed “inherently safe” and that the supplier owed no duty to warn to the Plaintiff.
Johnson & Johnson maintains that its Baby Powder is safe, and has indicated that they will appeal this verdict. Johnson & Johnson’s spokeswoman Carol Goodrich stated after the verdict was issued that they “are guided by the science, which supports the safety of Johnson’s Baby Powder.”
Many reputable research organizations maintain that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that talc causes ovarian cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – which is part of the World Health Organization – holds the position that there is no epidemiological evidence that convincingly demonstrates that talc causes ovarian cancer. Moreover, the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query Editorial Board indicated this past April that the “weight of the evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer.” The United States Food and Drug Administration has also indicated that talc products are not carcinogenic.
Despite the inconclusive evidence on this topic, it is expected that the number of claims such as Echeverria’s will infinitely rise, and may very well become the new wave of mass litigation in the United States.