On Monday night, a jury in St. Louis awarded $72 million to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer after using Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and other talcum-based products for years. The verdict came after a three-week trial in which lawyers for the plaintiff, an Alabama woman named Jacqueline Fox, argued that Johnson & Johnson had known of the dangers of talcum powder since the 1980s and concealed the risks. The corporation’s lawyers countered by saying the safety of talcum powder was supported by decades of scientific evidence and there was no direct proof of causation between its products and Fox’s cancer.
Fox used Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and another talc-based product called Shower to Shower for 35 years. “It just became second nature, like brushing your teeth,” her son said. “It’s a household name.” The company has come under fire in recent years from consumer safety groups for the use of questionable ingredients in its products, including formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, both of which are considered likely carcinogens. Fox’s case was the first to reach a monetary award among some 1,200 lawsuits pending nationally against the company.
The case bears a notable resemblance to the lawsuits against the tobacco companies, with attorneys for both the plaintiff and the defendant taking a page from the playbook of their respective side. Fox’s lawyers claimed that Johnson & Johnson’s own medical consultants warned in internal documents of the risk of ovarian cancer from hygienic talc use, just as tobacco companies knew for decades that smoking caused lung cancer but sought to suppress the evidence. And the pharmaceutical giant responded as the tobacco industry did in the numerous lawsuits it faced in the 1980s and 1990s: by creating doubt about the mechanism of cancer causation and upholding the safety of its products.
I find this case uniquely disturbing because the image of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder as a household product that evokes a sense of comfort and protection is so at odds with the jury’s finding that it caused or contributed to a case of fatal ovarian cancer. The company appears to be right in claiming that the scientific evidence is inconclusive: some studies have shown a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer among women who use products containing talcum powder, while others have found no link. It’s important to note that until the 1970s talcum-based products contained asbestos, so people who used them before that time were exposed to a known carcinogen. Still, the research is unsettled enough that the American Cancer Society advises people who are concerned about talcum powder to avoid using it “[u]ntil more information is available.”
Without examining the trial transcripts or interviewing the jurors, it’s impossible to know for sure what factors influenced the verdict. I imagine the tobacco settlements have irrevocably changed the environment surrounding these types of lawsuits—that there’s a sizable segment of the American public which is understandably suspicious of large corporations trying to conceal research about the health risks of their products. I suspect there’s also an element of causation and blame at work here, about wanting to assign responsibility for a disease that remains, for the most part, perplexing and impenetrable. We all make choices that affect our health on a daily basis, from what kind of shampoo to use to what to eat for lunch, and we want assurance that the repercussions of the decisions we make with good intentions will be in our best interest. But as the unprecedented $72 million verdict shows, we have an immense uneasiness about the dangers lurking behind the most benign-seeming household products. And we fear that those products, rather than benefiting us, will instead do us harm.