Baby Powder and Cancer
Johnson & Johnson (J & J), a gigantic, multinational, consumer products company has been producing its product Baby Power since 1893. After its release, the powder rapidly became one of the most familiar and trusted products in the world. Initially, the powder was primarily used on babies to prevent diaper rash. To expand the market, J & J publicized the catchphrase “a sprinkle a day keeps the odor away”. This broadened use to adults, primarily women, who began using it frequently, if not daily, on the perineal (genital) area to absorb moisture, reduce friction and chaffing, and provide deodorant benefits. Use of Baby Powder became so widespread, that the iconic white container became a staple in medicine cabinets around the world.
So, is it really plausible that this clean smelling and soothing soft stuff, that is supposedly mild enough to use on a baby’s bottom, causes cancer?
The primary component in the power is talc, thus it is a talcum power. Talc is a naturally occurring mineral that exists in clay and rocks and is mined from the earth then ground into a fine power. Many of the mines used to obtain talc also contain asbestos, which is also a naturally occurring mineral. Problematic is the fact that asbestos is a proven carcinogenic (cancer causing) substance and when minute particles are inhaled over a period of time, a type of lung cancer (mesothelioma) or severe lung disease (asbestosis) can occur. Asbestos has been heavily regulated in the US, but it is still possible for miners to harvest talc contaminated with asbestos. Interestingly, cosmetics that contain talc are not regulated nor do they have to be approved by the FDA before they are offered to the public.
Concerns about the possibility that ovarian cancer might be caused by talcum powder use around women’s perineum was heightened in the 1970’s when scientist noticed talc particles in ovaries removed from women with ovarian cancer. It was postulated that tiny talc particles from the powder applied ‘down there’ for hygiene purposes, could enter the vaginal cavity and migrate via the fallopian tubes to the ovaries resulting in a chronic inflammatory response, a condition that can be precancerous.
This postulation has not been unequivocally proven or refuted after hundreds of clinical studies. Most of the trials to date have yielded conflicting results. All of these studies have been epidemiologic or population investigations and some have produced data indicating an association between talc use and ovarian cancer but these study designs do not allow proof of a cause and effect relationship.
This past summer, J & J was ordered to pay a record $4.69 billion to 22 women and their families who claimed that their exposure to the company’s Baby Power, containing talc and asbestos, caused them to develop ovarian cancer. So, if cause and effect has not been established by clinical trials, how is it that this court penalized J & J with such a large award?
It has become apparent from court documents that the verdict and award were not because the plaintiff’s attorneys proved the powder caused the cancer. What they did show was that J & J, for over 40 years, covered-up the fact that their Baby Power could have been made with talc contaminated with trace amounts of asbestos. A mining company that supplied some of the talc to J & J did so with an attached warning about possible asbestos contamination and the company chose to use the talc anyway but did not provide warnings to the public nor report these facts to any regulatory agency. J & J claimed that they tested the talc for asbestos and results were typically negative, but “on occasion” were positive. They asserted that the amounts were so small that it was unlikely to present a health hazard.
This trial was not about determining if and how much asbestos in talc might be harmful, but it was about a ruling and sizable award to send a message to trusted corporations to deter them from deceiving the public in an effort to maintain or bolster profits. If corporations pursue behavior that deceives American citizens thus violating public trust, they should be punished.
J & J apparently can financially afford to cover the cost of this settlement (and many other cases that are pending). The bigger question is if the bottom line will gradually suffer from distrust by consumers.
Finally, we don’t know with certainty if talcum powder (with or without asbestos contamination) is harmful or how harmful it might be. We do know that there is no real health benefit from its use. So, if a powder is needed, why not choose one that has an alternative ingredient such as cornstarch.
Dr. Tippett is founder of Comprehensive Quality Healthcare Providers, a concierge internal medicine practice located at 1210 Commerce Dr. Suite 106, Greensboro, Ga. 30642. He can be reached at 706-510-3659. Visit his webpage at www.drtippett.com