FACT CHECK: Does talc cause cancer?


You’ve probably noticed a sharp increase in the number of ads saturating late-night TV from lawyers eager to hear from you if you or a loved one had ovarian cancer and also used talcum powder.

But does this fine, pure-looking white powder that comes from the softest mineral on earth cause cancer?

Johnson & Johnson, the world’s largest commercial user of talc in hygiene products for more than a century, says absolutely not. Yet juries in three separate cases involving women who contracted ovarian cancer disagreed with the worldwide company and awarded the families of two women a total of $127 million.

IMG_3135• Last week’s verdict was for Gloria Ristesund, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 after using the company’s talc-based hygiene products for decades. Ristesund underwent a hysterectomy and her cancer is in remission.

• Three months earlier, in the same St. Louis courtroom, jurors found Johnson guilty of negligence, conspiracy and fraud stemming from the death last October of 62-year-old Jacqueline Fox. The family of the Tarrant, Alabama, woman was awarded $72 million.

• The first talc case credited with sparking hundreds of personal injury suits against Johnson went to trial in November 2013 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There a jury ruled that the pharmaceutical giant was negligent after physician’s assistant Deane Berg sued the company for failing to warn her and other consumers about the dangers of talc and ovarian cancer.

Berg said she had used Shower to Shower body powder for 30 years and had been diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer, which had metastasized to her lymph nodes. A full hysterectomy and months of chemo were credited with saving her life. The finding that the company was negligent was all the court gave her. No damages were awarded.

But in March, Berg told the New York Post that the suit wasn’t about the money and that she “had turned down a $1.3 million out-of-court settlement because I didn’t want to sign a confidentiality clause.”

According to reports in the Rapid City Journal, three physicians analyzed Berg’s cancer tissue and found talc from the body powder. For more details on Berg’s case, check out FairWarning.org.

For more than a century, talc, the finely ground white powder from magnesium silicate, has been used in thousands of products – fillers in the majority of pills and capsules, to dusting surgical gloves, condoms and balloons, to a sculpting material for artists, to baby and body powder and most cosmetic powders.

If you’re looking for a black-and-white answer on the carcinogenicity of talc, it depends on whom and how you ask. The American Cancer Society says that it “has been suggested” that talc could cause ovarian cancer if the powder comes in direct contact with the genital area. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies perineal use of talc-containing products as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Nevertheless, scores of studies – including several by federal occupational health experts – have shown high numbers of cases where workers at some of the nation’s largest talc mines, such as R.T. Vanderbilt in New York, contracted cancers and severe respiratory diseases from exposure to asbestos contaminating the talc they mined.

The legal community is watching closely to see what Johnson does with its next talc case, which is scheduled for trial in September. Yet they’re wasting no time signing up new clients. Lawyers in Texas and Missouri told Cold Truth it’s estimated that more than 7,000 potential claimants are being screened by several law firms and more are in a very long pipeline.

Cable TV and the Web are filled with solicitations like this:

A typical lawyer’s ad from the Internet
A Missouri jury recently awarded $72m in damages to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer, having used the well-known brand of powder for years. More than 1,200 other cases are still waiting to be heard. If you or a loved one was diagnosed with ovarian cancer after using talcum powder, contact the attorneys at XXXXXX & XXXXXXX to discuss whether you might have a claim.

Personal injury lawyers do their best to avoid going to trial. Most would much rather piggyback on another lawyer’s earlier headline-grabbing, big-dollar victory. Some prefer to settle out-of-court on a large number of cases with minimal work than battle it out one-by-one, even for a huge settlement.

An examination of the tens of thousands of asbestos injury cases that overwhelm court dockets throughout the country shows the same who-blinks-first settlement games. Lawyers who have been handling such cases for decades estimate that in recent years, more than 90 percent of cases rarely make it before a jury. Sometimes, both sides agree in the moments before the judge’s gavel is slammed into his desktop.

The FDA really doesn’t know whether the talc used in more than 50,000 medications and other consumer products is safe or tainted with cancer-causing asbestos.

In 2009, the South Korean government ordered a recall of more than 1,000 brands of medicine because its tests showed that the talc filler used in the pills and capsules was possibly contaminated with asbestos. At the time, Coldtruth.com reported, that the South Korean Food and Drug Administration discovered that its country’s largest pharmaceutical companies were importing the tainted-talc from China.

News of the Korean recall focused attention on concerns of some public health experts who were frustrated when they learned that the U.S. FDA had no idea about the safety of the talc being used in this country, especially since many medication and cosmetic makers also bought talc from China, the world’s largest producer of the powder.

Halfheartedly at best, the FDA asked 17 U.S. talc mines to supply samples for examination. Most ignored the request. The agency collected a handful of cosmetics to test. No asbestos fibers or structures were found in any of the samples.
However, the FDA admitted that the results were limited by the small number of samples and the fact that most mines didn’t supply raw talc, said the agency.

“For these reasons, while FDA finds these results informative, they do not prove that most or all talc or talc-containing cosmetic products currently marketed in the United States are likely to be free of asbestos contamination,” the FDA added with surprising candor.

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