Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay $417m in damages after a jury in California found in favour of the claimant, who alleged that she had developed ovarian cancer after using the company’s “Baby Powder”. The case follows a string of litigation in the US, colloquially known as the “talc litigation”.

Prior to this order, the company had lost four out of the five cases tried before juries in the US. Johnson & Johnson has subsequently incurred more than $300m in penalties and faces thousands more claims of a similar nature. However, a number of claims have also been thrown out by the US courts. 

It is alleged by the claimants that Johnson & Johnson was aware of the possible cancer risks associated with using Baby Powder, yet failed to disclose this information to the public. Specifically, claimants have sought to prove that Johnson & Johnson was aware that talc, the main product in Baby Powder, contains asbestos fibres which can cause cancer. 

Unsealed documents provided by Johnson & Johnson for pre-trial depositions show tests dating from as early as 1972 where no traces of asbestos are present in any talc used by the pharmaceutical company. An undated memo written by Johnson & Johnson further states that asbestos “has never been found and it never will [be]”. However, other documents disclosed include a recommendation written in May 1974 detailing a process through which asbestos may be removed from talc. 

Evidence proving the link between the use of talc and cancer is inconclusive. Mineral talc in its natural form has been found to contain asbestos fibres, as the two minerals often occur naturally near each other. However, asbestos-free talc is frequently used in cosmetics across the world and has been since the 1970s. Because of mixed evidence, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies talc as “possibly carcinogenic”. 

The ovarian cancer charity “Ovacome” has stated that there is no definitive link between the use of talc and ovarian cancer. However, a spokesperson for the charity has said using talc products frequently on the genital area may increase the risk of cancer by a third, though “very few women who use talc will ever get ovarian cancer”. 

Thus far, all actions have been brought within the US. Johnson & Johnson continues to defend the product’s safety and is appealing the most recent order made against it.