A jury awarded $72 million to the family of a woman who used Johnson and Johnson baby powder all of her life and who died of ovarian cancer
The world is a dangerous place. We know automobiles can be dangerous, as can some chemicals. We now recognize the risk caused by smoking, by minerals such as asbestos and chemicals like dioxin. But there are some things we take for granted as being safe.
Baby powder, for instance. This powder, made from talcum, has been around "forever" and since it is used on babies, and has the word "baby" in its title, you would expect that it must be harmless.
On the other hand, a jury recently found that Johnson & Johnson was liable for negligence in the death of a woman who believed their advertising and their tagline of, "Want to feel cool, smooth and dry? It's as easy as taking powder from a baby."
Talc is a mineral that has a very soft feel and combined with some fragrant oils, baby powder can evoke strong memories of babies and youth, which can be very powerful as a marketing tool. Johnson & Johnson has been selling it since1894 and it is deeply associated with the company.
The woman died of ovarian cancer after long-term genital use of baby powder. A jury awarded her family $72 million in damages, including $62 million in punitive damages. There are now more than 1,000 lawsuits pending against Johnson & Johnson involving baby powder.
Does Baby Powder cause cancer?
Johnson & Johnson claims there is no "scientific" connection between ovarian cancer and the use of baby powder by some women. Talc has been linked to ovarian cancer and researchers found talc deep inside the ovarian tumors of some women 45 years ago.
The problem here is that the absence of scientific studies showing that ovarian cancer is caused by talc does not mean that talc is not the cause. It simply means the research has not discovered the link.
This may be due to the regulatory status of baby powder. It is treated as a cosmetic by the Food and Drug Administration, and so has not been subject of rigorous medical or scientific studies.
Few products are studied for harmful effects
Talc is not alone in this classification. With the exception of some drugs, there are few substances in the products you buy and use everyday that have been examined in light of the risk they may pose to humans. Thousands of chemicals that are used every day have never been studied and as was shown by the chemical spill in West Virginia in 2014, it is only after a catastrophe occurs that anyone asks the question "is this safe?"
Defense attorneys for large corporations, like Johnson & Johnson, rely on uncertainty and distract jurors with speculation on flawed studies that show no association of ovarian cancer with talc use.
When assessing scientific evidence like these studies, it is important to be certain they are relevant to the women who become ill with ovarian cancer in these cases. As one expert noted, the studies that matter are those that measure both how often baby powder was used and for how long.
The woman who died in this case had used it every day since she was 12 years old. Her attorneys argued that the manufacturer should issue a warning to women of the risk of sustained, frequent use.
Scientific causation can be difficult to determine
With commercial products, there is always an incentive for manufacturers to obscure connections. As one expert points out, the Zilka virus had been suspected of causing microcephaly, and because of that women are being warned of the potential connection. Only recently has the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a scientifically determined connection.
When the item in question is the "signature" product of a more than 100-year-old company, the company usually cannot be trusted to vigorously investigate the evidence and make the necessary changes if the product is found to cause a disease.