Do UK parents need to be concerned about Johnson & Johnson talc scandal?

Johnson & Johnson has stopped sales of its talc-based baby powder in the US and Canada amid cancer lawsuits

Sabrina Barr
Thursday 21 May 2020 10:40

Talc-based baby powder has been a staple item for many households for over a century, used to soothe babies’ sensitive skin.

However, the talc-based product sold by Johnson & Johnson has been subject to controversy for several years amid claims, in the form of thousands of lawsuits, that it can cause cancer.

On Wednesday 20 May, it was reported that J&J is to cease sales of its talc-based baby powder in the US and Canada due to decreased demand.

However, the international pharmaceuticals producer is to continue selling the product in other parts of the world, including the UK.

So should parents and other consumers who purchase the company’s baby powder be concerned?

Why is J&J ceasing sales of baby powder in the US and Canada?

When announcing it is to stop selling its talc-based baby powder in the US and Canada, the corporation said this decision was made due to “declining demand” in North America, which was “due in large part to changes in consumer habits”, with the coronavirus pandemic impacting shopping and manufacturing processes.

The firm added that the reduced demand had been “fuelled by misinformation around the safety of the product and a constant barrage of litigation advertising”.

J&J is current facing around 19,400 lawsuits alleging that its talc powder has caused users to develop cancer over the years.

In December 2018, a report published by Reuters claimed that J&J had been aware for years that small amounts of asbestos, a known carcinogen, were present in its baby powder.

The company has repeatedly maintained that its products are safe, with a spokesperson stating that the corporation has no plans to settle any lawsuits and “will continue to vigorously defend” its product.

The firm will continue selling its cornstarch-based baby powder in North America.

Christie Nordhielm, a professor of marketing at Georgetown University in Washington DC, speculated that J&J was tactical when deciding the time to announce the removal of its baby powder from the market in the US and Canada.

“It’s a nice time to quietly do it,” the professor said, in reference to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “It will minimise the reputational hit.”

What is talc?

Talc is “the softest mineral on earth” explains, a website created by charity The Mesothelioma Centre.

“Finely crushed talcum powder is valued for its ability to absorb moisture and provide lubrication at the same time. People have used talcum powder products to dry, protect and perfume their skin for more than a century.”

Does talc cause cancer?

When discussing the question of whether talc causes cancer, it is important to distinguish between talc that is contaminated with asbestos and talc that isn’t.

The American Cancer Society outlines that when talc is in its natural form, it may contain asbestos, “a substance known to cause cancers in and around the lungs when inhaled”.

“Talc that has asbestos is generally accepted as being able to cause cancer if it is inhaled. The evidence about asbestos-free talc is less clear,” the organisation stresses.

The American Cancer Society states that “it has been suggested” that talc may cause ovarian cancer “if the powder particles (applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms, or condoms) were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary”.

The organisation adds that in the numerous investigations to have explored a possible connection between talcum powder and ovarian cancer, “findings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase”.

The society stated that “no increased risk of lung cancer has been reported with the use of cosmetic talcum powder”, while talc has not been “strongly linked” to other forms of cancer.

“Although not all possible links with other cancers have been studied extensively,” the organisation adds.

On the website, it says that there is no indication that pure talc causes mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that develops in the linings of the lungs, abdomen or heart.

“But talc that is contaminated with asbestos and asbestiform minerals has led to the development of mesothelioma,” it adds.

In January 2020, a review, which followed more than 250,000 women for approximately 11 years, concluded that there is ”no significant link” between using talcum powder on the genital area and developing ovarian cancer.

The NHS stated that previous studies linking talcum powder use on the genital area and ovarian cancer “may have been flawed, because they relied on women with and without cancer being asked to remember if they had used talc on their vulva”.

“Women with cancer are more likely to remember or mention something that could be linked to cancer than women without, meaning these studies could have biased results,” the health service said.

However, the NHS added that while the study “is reassuring”, researchers “cannot rule out a very small increase in risk”.

“There is no need to use talc on the vulva for hygiene reasons,” the organisation stated.

Should parents and other consumers in the UK be concerned?

On the J&J website, it states that the company’s baby powder “does not contain asbestos, a substance classified as cancer-causing”.

“The talc used in all our global production is carefully selected and processed to be asbestos-free, which is confirmed by regular testing to confirm purity,” the company says.

“Like all our products, Johnson’s baby powder contains only ingredients that have been fully evaluated by scientific and medical experts to ensure they are safe to use.”

The company adds that “decades of safety reviews by independent researchers and scientists have shown that cosmetic talc is safe to use with no proven causal link to cancer”.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies talc as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, thus not providing a definitive answer.

“It is not clear if consumer products containing talcum powder increase cancer risk. Studies of personal use of talcum powder have had mixed results, although there is some suggestion of a possible increase in ovarian cancer risk,” the American Cancer Society says.

“There is very little evidence at this time that any other forms of cancer are linked with consumer use of talcum powder. Until more information is available, people concerned about using talcum powder may want to avoid or limit their use of consumer products that contain it.”

Paul Pharoah, professor of cancer epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, said it is “biologically plausible” talcum powder applied to the genital area could result in ovarian cancer.

Dr Ranit Mishori, professor of family medicine at Georgetown University, told Reuters that she does not believe there is any proof of a link between talc and cancer.

However, the professor added: “If you are concerned, just don’t use it.”

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