Closely-Watched Talcum Powder-Cancer Trial Underway in St. Louis

Plaintiff attorney Allen Smith of The Smith Law Firm
Plaintiff attorney R. Allen Smith of The Smith Law Firm in Ridgeland, Mississippi.

The fifth in a series of trials is underway in St. Louis over the connection between Johnson & Johnson’s talc-containing personal hygiene products and ovarian cancer.

In Judge Rex Burlison’s courtroom, 61-year-old Lois Slemp of Virginia is charging that Johnson & Johnson, the maker of the baby powder and Shower-to-Shower products she used for 40+ years, are the cause of her Stage III ovarian cancer.

More than 3,000 women are making the same claim, with 1,000 of them seeking damages in St. Louis, where the Slemp trial is underway.

Another 158 cases are filed in MDL 2738 before U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson in New Jersey, IN RE: Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Products Marketing, Sales Practices and Products Liability Litigation.

Juries: talc causes cancer

Does talcum powder cause cancer? Three juries that looked at the science said “yes,” and returned verdicts of $72 million, $70 million and $55 million to the women plaintiffs, whose cancerous ovaries were found to contain talcum powder.

Plaintiffs charge that J&J and its talc supplier, Imerys Talc America, never warned consumers about the potential cancer risks from talc-containing products despite being aware of many scientific studies since the 1970s that found that talc is a carcinogen.

Slemp’s attorney Allen Smith of The Smith Law Firm told jurors they would see internal J&J documents that show a clear knowledge of a link between talc and ovarian cancer, and that the company engaged in extensive lobbying to avoid classification of talc as a carcinogen by regulatory agencies.

“This case is about corporate profit and maintaining a corporate image over human life,” Smith said, according to a Courtroom View Network webcast of the trial. “That’s what this case is about. And your verdict could prevent potentially hundreds of thousands of women from contracting one of the most deadly forms of cancer.”

J&J attorney Orlando Richmond of Butler Snow in Jackson, Mississippi, called Smith’s arguments as being made up of “bubble gum and tape.” J&J and Imerys argue that talc is no more dangerous than alcohol or red meat, neither of which carries a cancer warning label. “This is going to be a fight, and it’s going to be a fight because it’s a serious thing being accused of a product that causes ovarian cancer,” Richmond said.

J&J is also represented by Covington & Burling’s and by Shook Hardy & Bacon. Imerys is represented by Dykema Gossett Smith’s, and by Gordon & Rees.

J&J ignored scientific warnings for years

Johnson & Johnson has been ignoring scientific research connecting talcum powder to cancer for 46 years. In 1971, the first study was conducted that suggested an association between talc and ovarian cancer. This study was conducted by Dr. WJ Henderson and others in Cardiff, Wales.

  • In 1982, the first epidemiologic study was performed on talc powder use in the female genital area. This study was conducted by Dr. Daniel Cramer and others. They found a 92% increased risk of ovarian cancer with women who reported genital talc use.
  • More recently, in 2008 a study published by Cancer Epidemiology, researchers from Harvard University compared about 1,400 women, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, to 1,800 healthy women. The baby powder cancer study found that the use of talcum powder was associated with a 36 percent increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • A Cancer Prevention Research study in 2013 found that feminine hygiene use of talcum powder was associated with a 20 to 30 percent increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
  • The results of the last three studies prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to classify talc as a “possible human carcinogen.

Baby powder is made from talc, which is a mineral primarily comprised of magnesium, silicon and oxygen. Talc is structurally similar to asbestos, which is a known carcinogen. As a matter of fact, until the early 1970s, some talcum products were contaminated with asbestos.

When talc is ground to make baby powder, the mineral absorbs moisture and reduces friction. These properties make talc a widely used ingredient in personal hygiene products and cosmetic products, as well as many other consumer goods.

The problem is this: if talcum powder is used on the genitals, talc particles can easily migrate into the ovaries, where they remain trapped. These trapped talc particles cause inflammation, which can lead to the growth of cancer cells.

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