More than 4,800 women with ovarian cancer and their families have filed lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson over its talc powders
The science is mixed on a possible connection between talc and ovarian cancer
Visitors who walk into Deborah Giannecchini’s ranch house in Modesto, California, will notice a well-tended garden, four small dogs who greet every visitor with enthusiasm and a sign that hangs prominently displayed in her living room that reads “It’s never too late to live happily ever after.”
She got it when she was 62 years old, after she married her husband, Leland, but it could also represent her current mission: to help other women avoid the pain she’s experienced and allow them to have their own happy endings.
Giannecchini is living with what is considered terminal ovarian cancer. “That’s what they say. I’m trying to prove that it’s not,” she said. “I don’t wish this on anyone else. And if I can save one person, then I’ve done my job.”
She and thousands of others claim that they got their ovarian cancer after using a common toiletry as a part of their daily feminine hygiene routine. They used talc-based powder, commonly referred to as talcum powder or baby powder, though some baby powder products are cornstarch-based. Cornstarch products are not believed to cause any health problems.
Some 4,800 women and their families have now sued pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, which has sold the talc-based product Johnson’s Baby Powder for more than 100 years. Many women like Giannecchini who have sought help from the courts have said they want Johnson & Johnson to, at the very least, put a warning label on the powder.
A handful of talcum powder companies have done just that. For example, Assured’s Shower & Bath Absorbent Body Powder says that it is “intended for external use only” and adds, “Frequent application of talcum powder in the female genital area may increase the risk of ovarian cancer.”
Johnson & Johnson argues that such a label would be confusing, because although the company regularly expresses sympathy for these women, it vehemently denies that its powder has anything to do with their ovarian cancer. A handful of scientists have backed the company up in court. And other scientists back the women’s claims.
The topic is a growing debate in the scientific community. Some studies have found that women face an increased risk of ovarian cancer with use of talc in the genital area, but others do not. Most suggest that more research is needed.
At the intersection of this debate are lawyers who are putting this science under the microscope in courtrooms across the country. They’ve shown juries selective internal company memos that they say suggest Johnson & Johnson has been aware of this potential problem for decades and done nothing.
Johnson & Johnson’s lead counsel on two of the cases argues that the lawsuits are all about the money, rather than being all about the science. “My take on the talc ovarian cancer litigation is that it really is skillful and well-funded plaintiffs lawyers who are exaggerating science and taking it out of context to scare people and to frighten the public with the goal of lining their own pockets,” Bart Williams said. “I think they are wrong scientifically. I think they are wrong legally, and I think the evidence shows that the science doesn’t support using talc and ovarian cancer.”
Johnson & Johnson is not the only talc product manufacturer being sued over ovarian cancer claims, although most include the company because its products have dominated the market the longest. Some lawsuits mention talc makers including Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which now owns the Shower to Shower brand (owned by Johnson & Johnson until 2012).
Valeant would not grant an interview, but it sent a statement. “The safety of our products and the customers who use them are our company’s highest priority. Shower to Shower is a safe and effective product, and the scientific and medical consensus is that these products do not cause ovarian cancer,” said the statement from Lainie Keller, vice president of corporate communications for Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. “It’s important to note that the lawsuits nearly all allege use of Shower to Shower prior to 2012 when our company acquired the product. Given our limited role and the strong legal, factual and scientific defenses, we do not believe claims will be established successfully against our company.”
Other lawsuits mention Gold Bond’s talcum powder, manufactured by Chattem Inc., a Sanofi company, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Some lawsuits include Imerys Talc America, which mines the talc in some of the powders. “We remain confident in the consensus of government agencies and professional scientific organizations that have reviewed the safety of talc, that talc is safe,” Gwen Myers, a spokeswoman for Imerys Talc America, said in a statement. “Imerys Talc America sympathizes with women suffering from ovarian cancer and hopes that the scientific community’s efforts will be directed toward finding the true causes of this terrible disease.”
One related batch of lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson argues that its Baby Powder is contaminated with asbestos and that asbestos is causing women to develop the cancer mesothelioma. The two minerals are often mined near each other, although since the 1970s, talc used in all consumer products has been required to be asbestos-free. Johnson and Johnson says their talc does not contain asbestos. A jury ruled in Johnson & Johnson’s favor in one of those asbestos lawsuits in California in November.
The lawyers who argue that talc itself is the problem have experienced rapid success in convincing juries in South Dakota, Missouri and California that there is a cancer connection, winning hundreds of millions for their clients. In October, judges reversed two of those verdicts.
In one case against Johnson & Johnson involving Jacqueline Fox, who died four months after a jury awarded her $72 million, a Missouri appellate court judge ruled that the Alabama woman did not use the product in Missouri and that therefore, the case should not have been heard there. The court reversed the jury verdict due to jurisdictional issues. In the other, a California case involving Johnson & Johnson and Eva Echeverria, who also died after her favorable jury verdict, the judge reversed the jury decision, saying that there was “insufficiency of the evidence as to the causation as to both defendants.”
Each of the five cases that has won a favorable verdict for the plaintiff is in various stages of appeal or soon will be. Johnson & Johnson won one of the talc cases in March, when a Missouri jury found that its baby powder did not cause a Tennessee woman’s ovarian cancer. Though legal teams are investigating thousands of other potential cases, what is less clear is where the science will lead and what the future will be for an iconic product that’s on bathroom shelves around the world.
A cosmetic love
Giannecchini has had a lifelong relationship with talcum powder. Long after she went to court to sue Johnson & Johnson and its talc supplier Imerys Talc America in 2016, she said, she found a few small bottles in an old suitcase she hadn’t used for a while.
She’d been using Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder nearly every day since high school. Sometimes, she’d also use the Shower to Shower product, which Johnson & Johnson used to own. She liked the powders because “both felt nice,” she said. “It was smooth and made your skin smell nice and fresh. It was just part of what I did every day.”
Her friends used it, and she knew the company’s advertising jingle by heart. “A sprinkle a day keeps the odor away,” she shyly sang ditty when she took the stand in 2016. “Have you had your sprinkle today?”
Health-conscious and a self-described label-reader, Giannecchini never saw anything on the powder bottle to give her pause. “If you’ve seen the ads, you know it is supposed to be a pure and innocent and harmless product that we use on babies,” she said. Like millions of others, she sprinkled away.
Talcum powder: A short history
Talc makes a great powder because it is among the softest minerals, reduces friction and has a great ability to absorb oils, moisture and odor. It’s mainly mined in China, India, Brazil, Mexico and the United States, according to the US Geological Survey. Most talc isn’t actually used for cosmetics; it’s found more often in household products: the ceramics in your bathroom fixtures, the roof over your head, the paint on your wall. It’s in plastic, paper and even in the gum you chew.
Johnson & Johnson started selling talc in 1894 after customers complained that the company’s original medicated bandages irritated their skin. To soothe it, the company’s scientific director mailed them Italian talc. It worked so well, customers also used it on their babies’ diaper rash and wrote Johnson & Johnson about it. Taking the cue, Johnson’s Toilet and Baby Powder was born.
Johnson & Johnson has grown into a giant $338.6 billion company offering hundreds of consumer products, medical devices and medicine, but its Baby Powder may have shaped its image the most, branding experts said, even though it doesn’t rank highest in the company’s sales.
“Because of it, Johnson & Johnson enjoys a strong brand image as being a company that cares,” said Aimee Drolet Rossi, the UCLA Anderson School of Management marketing chairwoman. “In fact, a lot of consumers don’t understand that Johnson & Johnson is a company that makes more than Baby Powder.”
Sales of talc-based products like general-purpose talc, baby talcum powder, perfumed talc and “liquid talcs” – perfumed liquids that can be sprayed over the body to leave a powdery feel – brought Johnson & Johnson nearly $325.2 million in 2016 alone, according to market research firm Euromonitor.
Adults also use the powder as a dry shampoo, a foot powder and a general after-shower ritual. “I used it everywhere, like a lot of my friends did, from head to toe,” Giannecchini said.
Some women like Giannecchini also used it for feminine hygiene. Women who sued the company have testified that they’d sprinkle it in their underwear, on their thighs to prevent chafing, on sanitary napkins and on tampons. It’s use in this area that’s concerned some scientists.
’My family saved my life’
Giannecchini didn’t know that there was some scientific concern about her favorite powder. In fact, she used it even after her ovarian cancer diagnosis, a diagnosis that came as a big surprise.
She had gone to the ER after her family pressured her because she was coughing constantly.
“I didn’t come home right away from the emergency room like I thought I would,” Giannecchini said. Instead of bronchitis, like she suspected, doctors found the cancer, and it was so advanced, they had to remove her spleen and part of her stomach. The cancer spread to her colon, bowel and bladder, too. The treatment was grueling, the prognosis not good.
Ovarian cancer, though comparatively rare, is one of the most lethal. With no general screening, it’s often caught late, like it was in her case.
“It was not pleasant,” Giannecchini said. “But my family likely saved my life.”
Giannecchini’s daughter Casey got her mom to quit her Baby Powder habit only after seeing a lawyer’s ad on TV. They’re frequently seen on late-night TV, saying things like “If you or a loved one have developed ovarian cancer after using talcum powder: call.”
Casey gave her mother the number, and Giannecchini sent in her information. She ended up speaking with Ted Meadows at the Beasley Allen law firm in Montgomery, Alabama. Meadows would soon lead her on a legal journey halfway across the country.