13/07/2018 3:33 PM IST | Updated 13/07/2018 3:39 PM IST

Is Talc Safe? Johnson & Johnson Ordered To Pay $4.7 Billion After Ovarian Cancer Claims

Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay $4.7bn (£3.6bn) in damages to 22 women who claim the company’s baby powder and other talcum powder products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. 

The verdict was given by a jury in Missouri, US, and the pharmaceutical company also faces claims from 9,000 other people. However, the company said it will be appealing the result.

“Johnson & Johnson is deeply disappointed in the verdict, which was the product of a fundamentally unfair process,” it said in a statement. “Every verdict against Johnson & Johnson in this court that has gone through the appeals process has been reversed and the multiple errors present in this trial were worse than those in the prior trials which have been reversed.”

Talc has been a bathroom cabinet staple in many households for years, but is it time to change our habits?  

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According to Cancer Research UK, before the 1970s talcum powder was often contaminated with asbestos fibres which are known to cause cancer. But since then, all home products containing talcum powder are legally obliged to be asbestos-free. The damages awarded in the latest trial relate to claims of cancer linked to asbestos after the women used baby powder and other products over several decades. However, there are experts who are still concerned about the safety of talc today, despite new asbestos-free formulas. 

“Some scientists have suggested that talc particles could travel to the ovaries, irritate them and cause inflammation,“ says Cancer Research UK. “Low-level, long-term inflammation may increase the risk of some types of cancer.” 

In 2003 the results of 16 studies involving 12,000 women showed that using talc increased the risk of ovarian cancer by around a third, according to ovarian cancer charity Ovacome. A 2013 review of American studies involving 18,000 women had similar results for genital talcum powder use, but not general use. 

Commenting after the latest trial, Cary Wakefield, chief executive of the charity Ovarian Cancer Action said: “If you’re currently using talc, don’t panic.”

“Given evidence is inconsistent we do advocate a ‘better safe than sorry’ attitude and advise that women using talc on their genitals stop doing so. But it’s important to remember that the suggested increased risk from using talcum powder is very small,” she told HuffPost UK.

“While the relative increase of a third suggested by some studies sounds significant, the absolute risk of getting ovarian cancer still remains very low. We’re talking about the difference between a 2% risk and a risk of 2.5%.”

Fiona Osgun, health information manager at Cancer Research UK, added: “Scientists are studying the link between women using talcum powder on their genitals and ovarian cancer and so far the evidence doesn’t give a clear picture.

“If there were a link, any increase in risk would be fairly small, and as ovarian cancer is a relatively rare disease, overall women who use talc would still have a low chance of developing the disease. ​More research is needed to work out what role, if any, talc use plays in ovarian cancer.”