In recent years, Johnson & Johnson, the world's largest pharmaceutical company, has been mired in thousands of lawsuits over products from hip implants to vaginal mesh to antipsychotic drugs. Most recently over 1,200 women have filed lawsuits against the company alleging that its talcum powder caused their ovarian cancers. The lawsuits further claim that the company knew about this risk and failed to disclose it to consumers.
Talc powder is derived from the mineral magnesium silicate, the softest known mineral. Talc power can absorb moisture and odor and prevent friction. It is most commonly used as a baby powder but is also commonly used in feminine personal hygiene. Talc powder can be found in a wide range of products from toothpaste to aspirin.
Studies on the link between talc powder and ovarian cancer date back to the 1970s. In the 1980's, researchers suggested that women who use talc powder might be 35% more likely to develop ovarian cancer than non-users.
But these findings have been disputed in recent years as researchers struggle to find a clear link between talc powder and ovarian cancer. Studies have found talc particles in cells of ovarian cancer, but these studies have also been called into question because talc powder was also present in the gloves used by the researchers.
Researchers now think that talc powder may create a greater risk for cancer by causing inflammation. When used for feminine hygiene, the powder can travel through the genital track into the ovaries, and the resulting inflammation may be the cause of the increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Jackie Fox, a woman who died of ovarian cancer in 2014 and who is named lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, claimed she grew up using the powder and used it every day until her diagnosis. Fox's family is filing the claims.
Internal documents at Johnson & Johnson reveal that the company was aware of these studies and failed to alert consumers. Company spokespeople say that the newest and best studies show no link.
But new studies continue to find conflicting evidence.
Johnson & Johnson isn't the only company that has faced health injury claims for its talc powder. People who regularly used other brands of talc powder in the 1960s and 1970s have brought cases against other companies for exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos can cause fatal illnesses and lung disorders. It is commonly associated with mesothelioma.
As recent as 2009 talc powder used in baby products was recalled by companies after it was found to be contaminated with Chinese made talc that contained asbestos.
Current methods of detection may not be enough. Studies have found that as much as 2% of asbestos in a product can go undetected after screenings.
The FDA continues to search better testing methods that will be able to detect any amount of asbestos.
Consumers can stay informed by keeping up with the American Cancer Society's list of known and probable human carcinogens (cancer causing substances). Consumers can also check the ingredients of products they use that may contain talc, including foot powders, face powder, makeup, other cosmetic powders, and sanitary pads.