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Talcum powder and cancer link fears after Johnson & Johnson court case

Talcum powder and cancer link fears after Johnson & Johnson court case - Featured Image

The family of an American woman has been awarded US$72m by Johnson & Johnson after she claimed using talcum powder caused her ovarian cancer. Jacqueline Fox died last year at the age of 62 after a three year battle with cancer.

In an audio deposition in the courtroom, she recounted using Johnson & Johnson products containing talcum powder for 35 years, using them for ‘feminine hygiene’ and applying to her genital area.

The jury came to the verdict after five hours of deliberations. The case is the first among more than 1000 nationally to result in a monetary reward.

Related: MJA – Preventing breast and ovarian cancers in high-risk BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutation carriers

However the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer has long been disputed by Johnson & Johnson, which said in a statement: “We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial. We sympathise with the plaintiff’s family but firmly believe the safety of cosmetic talc is supported by decades of scientific evidence.”

According to Paul Pharoah, Professor of Cancer Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, the decision of the court is flawed.

“First, the evidence of a causal association between genital talc use and ovarian cancer risk is weak. Second, even if the association were true, the strength of the association is too small to be able to say on the balance of probabilities that any cancer arising in a woman who used talc had been caused by the talc.”

He said the results of studies had been inconclusive and prone to bias however one recent multi-study collaborative analysis of over 8,000 cases and 9,000 controls found that perineal talc use was associated with a 20% increase in the risk of ovarian cancer.

Related: MJA – Reassessing rare cancers

Professor Pharoah said it’s important for people to remember the size of the possible risk: “A 20 year old woman in the UK has a risk of getting ovarian cancer at some point in her life of 18 in a thousand; a 20% increase in this risk would raise this to 22 in a thousand (assuming that the association were real). A woman with a fault in the BRCA1 gene has a lifetime risk of ovarian cancer of about 400 in a thousand.”

Professor Bernard Stewart, a world authority on environmental cancer risks who advises both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and Cancer Council Australia told Fairfax Media that it’s fair enough if women want to stop using talc.

“The evidence is enough to justify anxiety in an individual woman, and if an individual woman wants to stop using talc in this way I have absolutely no criticism of that”.

However he also says the evidence isn’t strong enough for anyone to worry about usage in the past.

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