How Does Using Talcum Powder Cause Ovarian Cancer?

The Wieand Law blog has already covered the recent talcum powder lawsuits against Johson & Johnson, but if you haven’t been following the story, here’s what you need to know in a nutshell: two juries have returned verdicts against J&J for its sale of talcum powder.  The product, which is sold and marketed to consumers as safe for daily use, has been found to cause women to develop ovarian cancer.  Even though J&J was aware of this risk, the company negligently failed to disclose the increased risk of cancer to consumers.  

How Much Does Baby Powder Increase Your Odds of Developing Ovarian Cancer?

Researchers have been aware that talcum powder causes ovarian cancer since at least 1971, when Welsh researchers discovered talc deposits in ovarian tumors.  In an earlier article on talcum powder and ovarian cancer, we examined a study from 1982, in which researchers again found “support for an association between talc and ovarian cancer.”

Many studies have been published since the seventies and eighties, when research pointing to the carcinogenic properties of talcum powder first began to emerge.  For example, a study published several months ago in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found a 44% increased risk of epithelial ovarian cancer, which develops in the tissue covering the ovaries, in African-American women.  A broader study published in Epidemiology (a separate journal) earlier this year, which compared more than 2,000 cancer victims against a control group of similar size, found a 33% increased risk overall.  

But why is talcum powder carcinogenic?  What is it about baby powder — a cheap, apparently simple product many people still perceive as harmless — that makes long-term exposure so deadly for female users?

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American Cancer Society: Talc Particles Can Migrate to Ovaries, Cause Tumors

Cancer develops because cells multiply at an abnormal rate, but the causes of abnormal cell division vary among patients.  Some patients, for example, inherit a mutated gene from their mother or father.  In others, cancer can be traced to excessive tanning or sunbathing, where ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the cause.  For others, cancer is caused by exposure to harmful chemicals or toxins, which are called carcinogens.

Talcum powder has been formally classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization.  However, medical researchers aren’t positive why talcum powder seems to increase the risk — in part because it’s uncertain why ovarian cancer ever develops.  To quote the American Cancer Society, “We don’t yet know exactly what causes most ovarian cancers.”

However, that doesn’t mean there are no theories.  As the American Cancer Society also notes, “[W]e know that tubal ligation” — a procedure better known as “having your tubes tied” — “and hysterectomy lower the risk of ovarian cancer.  One theory to explain this is that some cancer-causing substances” — such as talcum powder — “may enter the body through the vagina and pass through the uterus and fallopian tubes to reach the ovaries.”

This exact theory was mentioned in the Epidemiology study, in which researchers noted, “Biologic credibility of the talc/epithelial ovarian cancer association is enhanced by persuasive evidence that inert particles the size of talc, present in the vagina, can migrate to the upper genital tract.”  

This “persuasive evidence” comes from a little-known process called hysterosalpingoscintigraphy.  The procedure is difficult to pronounce, but the concept behind it is easy to understand.  By placing tiny, protein-based particles called albumin microspheres, which were developed during the 1970s to help medical researchers monitor dosage release, into the vagina, it’s possible for researchers to see the exact path talc particles take through the body.  The albumin microspheres described by the Epidemiology study were anywhere from five to 40 micrometers in diameter — a size range that includes talc particles.  

Thanks to hysterosalpingoscintigraphies, scientists know that talc particles are at least capable of migrating from a vaginal point of contact into the user’s upper genital tract, which includes the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.  Whether they actually do is a question that remains unanswered.  “Unfortunately,” the study authors wrote, “no epidemiologic study of epithelial ovarian cancer and talc has taken the opportunity to determine whether talc can actually be found in tissues removed at surgery and correlated with exposure to talc.”

Until the 1970s, talcum powder contained asos, a well-known industrial carcinogen that, even now, continues to cause about 2,500 annual mesothelioma deaths in the U.S.  However, while no one would argue that asos doesn’t cause cancer, baby powder products have been asos-free for several decades — and, as the American Cancer Society points out, “Studies that exposed lab animals… to asos-free talc in various ways have had mixed results, with some showing tumor formation and others not finding any.”

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Safe Alternatives to Carcinogenic Talcum Powder

Hopefully, medical research will soon be able to shine a brighter light on why perineal or vaginal use of talcum powder increases the likelihood of developing cancer of the ovaries.  Until then, it may be safer to try alternatives like cornstarch baby powder, a talc-free substance made from corn kernels.  In fact, according to this archived press release from PR Newswire, the American Cancer Society was actually recommending cornstarch baby powder over talcum powder as early as 1999 — citing ovarian cancer concerns.

Call a Philadelphia Product Liability Attorney

If you or one of your loved ones developed ovarian cancer after using talcum powder or other defective products, of if your doctor failed to diagnose ovarian cancer, you may be able to obtain compensation by filing a personal injury claim.  Call personal injury attorney Brent Wieand at (888) 789-3161 to set up a free legal consultation.

*Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes and is not legal advice. The Wieand Law Firm, LLC is based in Philadelphia, PA, and proud to serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey.*

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