Woman Wins $417 Million in Lawsuit Tying Baby Powder to Ovarian Cancer

But the association between talc and cancer continues to be debated by the scientific community

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A Los Angeles jury has ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $417 million to a terminally ill woman who says the company’s baby powder caused her to develop ovarian cancer. As Roni Caryn Rabin reports for the New York Times, the court’s decision may mark the largest payout in a string of lawsuits linking Johnson’s Baby Powder to the disease.

Eva Echeverria, 63, had reportedly been using Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder on her perineum for decades. The practice is not uncommon among women, who also dust their thighs with talc to prevent chafing, or use it to freshen underpants and sanitary pads. But thousands of lawsuits by female consumers against Johnson & Johnson allege the company’s baby powder causes ovarian and cervical tumors.

Only a few of these suits have gone to trial, but the cases against Johnson & Johnson have been predicated on a number of studies—some of them decades-old—that have found associations between baby powder and the development of cervical and ovarian cancer. In 1971, Welsh scientists discovered particles of talc embedded deeply in ovarian tumors. Some researchers have subsequently theorized that talc causes cancer because particles can travel up the reproductive system, causing inflammation in the ovaries. Over time, according to Alison Kodjak of NPR, the irritation could lead to cancer.

"Overall, women may increase their risk in general by about 33 percent by using talc in their hygiene," Daniel Cramer, who authored one of the first studies linking talc to ovarian cancer, tells Kodjak.

That finding remains contentious within the scientific and medical community. The American Cancer Society notes that many studies have looked into possible connections between talc and ovarian cancer, but “[f]indings have been mixed, with some studies reporting a slightly increased risk and some reporting no increase.”

“Many case-control studies have found a small increase in risk,” the organization adds. “But these types of studies can be biased because they often rely on a person’s memory of talc use many years earlier. Two prospective cohort studies, which would not have the same type of potential bias, have not found an increased risk.”

report from the National Cancer Institute states that the “weight of evidence does not support an association between perineal talc exposure and an increased risk of ovarian cancer” because “[r]esults from case-control and cohort studies are inconsistent.” But as Rabin notes in the Times, the Institute uses softer language elsewhere on its website, saying that “it is not clear” if talc increases cancer risks.

There has been a high rate of success for plaintiffs whose lawsuits have gone to trial. Last year, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $72 million, $55 million and $70 million in three similar jury verdicts. In May of this year, a Virginia woman who blamed her ovarian cancer on Johnson & Johnson’s talcum products won $110 million in a suit against the company. 

Following that lawsuit, Gwen Myers, a spokeswoman for Imerys Talc America, which supplies talc to Johnson & Johnson emailed a statement to Bloomberg.com, writing: "The jury’s verdict is contrary to the consensus of government and professional scientific organizations that have determined talc is safe."

In September of 2016, a New Jersey judge threw out two lawsuits alleging that Johnson & Johnson talcum powder causes ovarian cancer. And in March of this year, a St. Louis jury once again sided with the company, rejecting a woman’s claim that Johnson’s Baby Powder was responsible for the disease.

Mark Robinson, the lawyer for Echeverria, tells Rabin that his client filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson because she wanted to warn other women about the potential dangers of using talc.

“She told me, ‘I’m not doing this for myself,’” Robinson says. “She knows she’s going to die. She’s doing this for other women. She wants to do something good before she leaves.”

A spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson says in a public statement that the company will appeal the court’s decision.