No link between talc and cancer - expert


Is it safe to use baby powder?  What do the experts say?

The possible association between talcum powder and ovarian cancer has been talked about for decades but this week, for the first time, a jury in the US has awarded damages over the claims.

It's once again raised concerns over the safety of using talcum powder, so are we at risk?

University of Auckland Professor Andrew Shelling has an expertise in oncology and gynaecology and has been following the studies for 25 years. 

He doesn't believe there's a link.

"The evidence to date suggests that there is a slight association between the use of talcum powder and ovarian cancer, however that association is very weak and is really variable between different studies," he says.

"The studies that have shown it are relatively poor and may be showing things that aren't real.  The studies that have looked at talcum powder that are good ones, haven't found an association, so I think this is actually something that is not real and perhaps just an artefact of some of the studies that have been performed."

But this week, jurors in the US state of Missouri ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $108 million to the family of a woman who claimed baby powder caused her cancer.

Attorney for Jacqueline Fox, Jere Beasley, says Johnson and Johnson failed for decades to warn consumers that its talc-based products could cause cancer.

"They knew as far back as 1979 the association between talc and ovarian cancer. They knew that 1,500 women were dying each year from ovarian cancer caused or indirectly contributed to by talc and continued to sell, made a conscious decision not to warn," he says.

"They manipulated the media. They manipulated the scientific community. They manipulated the governmental agencies. And remember that talc is not regulated like drugs. It's a cosmetic."

Prof Shelling was surprised by the jury's finding.

"I've been following this quite intimately for the past 25 years, talcum powder comes up every few years and dies away again.  The evidence is very weak, it wouldn't withstand the scrutiny of most scientists so I'm surprised that it has passed in a court of law in America," he says.

He says ovarian cancer is a really serious disease and to focus on talcum powder is a little bit irresponsible. 

"We know that there are many other significant risk factors, some that we can do something about, some that we can't.  For example, being on the pill immediately halves your risk of ovarian cancer, so there are things that we do every day that are more significant risk factors than talcum powder," he says.

Prof Shelling says genetics are also a factor in ovarian cancer, as well as ageing, how many times you ovulate in your life and how many children you have.

Johnson & Johnson is now considering an appeal. 

In a statement it said: "The talc used in all our global products is carefully selected and meets the highest quality, purity and compliance standards.  The recent U.S. verdict goes against decades of sound science proving the safety of talc as a cosmetic ingredient in multiple products, and while we sympathize with the family of the plaintiff, we strongly disagree with the outcome.  Ovarian cancer is a complex disease with no known cause and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, National Cancer Institute and Cosmetic Ingredient Review Committee have all concluded that there is insufficient evidence linking talc to ovarian cancer."

So should those who are concerned stop using talcum powder?  Professor Shelling doesn't think so.

"I don't think there's any cause for concern, we're all naturally cautious when studies like this do show a weak association, however, I think that the association found is so weak that it's negligible," he says.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health has no advice or warnings on the safety of use of talcum powder, and the Cancer Society says it's now reviewing the evidence before it makes any statement.