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Verdict fuels baby powder-cancer debate

Linda A. Johnson
Associated Press

Trenton, N.J. — For the third time, Johnson & Johnson has been hit with a multimillion-dollar jury verdict over whether the talc in its iconic baby powder causes ovarian cancer when applied regularly for feminine hygiene.

Late Thursday, a St. Louis jury awarded $70.1 million to Deborah Giannecchini of Modesto, California, who was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2012. Giannecchini, then 59, said she had used Johnson’s Baby Powder for more than 40 years to keep her genital area dry, as many women do. She blamed it for her cancer and accused J&J of negligence.

Two other jury trials in St. Louis reached similar outcomes earlier this year, awarding the plaintiffs $72 million and $55 million.

But in J&J’s home state of New Jersey a judge recently threw out two other cases, ruling there wasn’t reliable evidence talc causes ovarian cancer, a relatively rare disease.

Johnson & Johnson says its product is safe, and is appealing all three losses. And investors don’t seem worried that J&J is in financial trouble, even though the company faces an estimated 2,000 similar lawsuits.

Here’s what experts say about talc and cancer.

What is talc?

Talc is a mineral that is mined from deposits around the world, including the U.S. It’s been widely used in cosmetics and other personal care products to absorb moisture since at least 1894, when Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder was launched. But it’s mainly used in a variety of other products, including paint and plastics.

A cause of ovarian cancer?

There’s no definitive answer. Finding the cause of cancer is difficult. It would be unethical to do the best kind of study, asking a group of women to use talcum powder on their genitals and wait to see if it causes cancer, while comparing them to a group who didn’t use it.

What research shows

The biggest studies have found no link between talcum powder applied to the genitals and ovarian cancer. But about two dozen smaller studies over three decades have mostly found a modest connection — a 20 percent to 40 percent increased risk among talc users.

However, that doesn’t mean talc causes cancer. Several factors make that unlikely, and there’s no proof talc can travel up the reproductive tract, enter the ovaries and trigger cancer.

What experts say

If there were a true link, Dr. Hal C. Lawrence III, of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, says large studies that tracked women’s health for years would have verified results of the smaller ones.

The National Cancer Institute’s Dr. Nicolas Wentzensen says the federal agency’s position is that there’s not a clear connection.