In a powerful New York Post article, ovarian cancer survivor Deane Berg told her story of how she blew the whistle on Johnson & Johnson’s failure to warn women of the link between baby powder and cancer. Her interview came just days after a Missouri jury awarded $72 million to the family of another woman, Jacqueline Fox, who died from ovarian cancer after using Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower for feminine hygiene for many years. The jury found that there was a causal link between the talc contained in the baby powder used by Fox and her ovarian cancer. The jury further concluded that Johnson & Johnson had known for years about the link between talc and ovarian cancer but has failed to warn its customers of the risks.
Berg had been the first woman to go to trial in a lawsuit alleging a link between talcum powder used for feminine hygiene purposes and ovarian cancer. Like many women of her generation, Berg had had dusted her perineum area with baby powder as a daily routine. It became a daily routine, like brushing her teeth. She used both Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower, which was specifically marketed as a feminine hygiene product. “A sprinkle a day helps keep odor away,” the ads said.
Her first clue that she might have a problem came in 2006, at age 49. After noticing spotting between periods, she went to her family practitioner, who told her she was fine. As a physician’s assistant, Berg knew the importance of a second opinion, so she set up an appointment with her gynecologist.
In December 2006, she went to Sanford Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for an ultrasound. To her surprise and dismay, she was told that she had a hemorrhagic ovary. As a result, she had to have both of her ovaries removed.
In January 2007, things went from bad to worse. The results of a biopsy revealed that she had a “bilateral carcinoma.” She was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer, which had metastasized to some of her lymph nodes. Her prognosis was not good; in fact, her life expectancy was a mere 5 years. Within a week, she had undergone a full hysterectomy and began preparing for months of painful chemotherapy.
Just a couple days after her surgery, she read some literature from her oncologist that included information from Gilda’s Club, the foundation created by friends of the late actress Gilda Radner. To her astonishment, it said that use of talcum powder had been implicated in the development of ovarian cancer. According to the leaflet, since the early 1980s, a slew of studies showed that women who regularly used talc for feminine hygiene had higher-than-average rates of ovarian cancer.
After conducting further research and speaking with a lawyer, Berg filed the first-ever lawsuit alleging a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. Explaining her decision to file a lawsuit, Berg told the publication Fair Warning: “I don’t want other women to suffer like I did if this could be prevented.” In October 2013, the jury rendered a strange verdict, finding in her favor on liability but awarding her no damages.
Despite her disappointment in the outcome of the trial Berg was thankful that the case had brought to light the link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer and exposed the efforts of Johnson & Johnson and others to cover up that link. She was even more thankful when a jury in St. Louis, Missouri recently awarded the family of a woman who died from ovarian cancer $72 million in a similar lawsuit alleging that her ovarian cancer was caused by her use of baby powder for feminine hygiene. Jurors found Johnson & Johnson liable for fraud, negligence and conspiracy after lawyers argued that the defendants knew about the dangers but did nothing to inform customers.
About 25,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. Each year, almost 15,000 women in the U.S. die from the disease. Experts have opined that nearly 10% of all ovarian cancer cases in the U.S. may be caused from prolonged exposure to baby powder products containing talc.
Suspicions about talc and ovarian cancer go back decades. In 1971, British researchers analyzed 13 ovarian tumors under a microscope and found talc particles “deeply embedded” in 10. In 1982, the journal Cancer published the first study showing a statistical link between genital talc use and ovarian cancer. Soon after, lead author Dr. Daniel Cramer, a gynecologist and Harvard Medical School professor, was visited by a senior scientist from J&J. He “spent his time trying to convince me that talc use was a harmless habit,” Cramer recalled, “while I spent my time trying to persuade him … that women should be advised of this potential risk.”
Altogether, about 20 epidemiological studies have found increased rates of ovarian cancer risk for women using talc for hygiene purposes. One report, published by Cramer and several co-authors in 1999, said talc use could be the cause of about 10 percent of ovarian cancers in the U.S. “Balanced against what are primarily aesthetic reasons for using talc in genital hygiene, the risk benefit decision is not complex,” the study said. “Appropriate warnings should be provided to women about the potential risks of regular use of talc in the genital area.”
In response to these findings, the Cancer Prevention Coalition, an advocacy group, asked the Food and Drug Administration in 1994 to require warnings against talc use for genital hygiene. The agency said it lacked evidence to require warnings, and Johnson & Johnson refused to issue them voluntarily.
Instead, the company and its allies circled the wagons. In 1992, the cosmetic and fragrance association launched a Talc Interested Party Task Force to develop talking points and find experts to rebut studies linking talc to ovarian cancer. But some statements by the trade group were “inaccurate, to phrase it euphemistically,” a consultant for J&J warned. In two 1997 letters to company officials, toxicologist Alfred P. Wehner attacked statements that “the scientific evidence did not demonstrate any real association between talc use in consumer products and ovarian tumors.”
“There are at least 9 epidemiological studies published in the professional literature describing a statistically significant (albeit weak) association between hygienic talc use and ovarian cancer,” Wehner wrote. He went on to state that “anybody who denies this risks that the talc industry will be perceived by the public like it perceives the cigarette industry: denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”
In 2006, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classified talc as a 2B agent–“possibly carcinogenic to human beings,”–based on the “remarkably consistent” results of epidemiological studies.
Citing the various studies linking talcum powder use with ovarian cancer, more than 1,200 women have filed lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson and other companies. Many are pending in state court in St. Louis, Missouri. Others are in federal court in New Jersey.
Reflecting back on her long journey, Deanne Berg stated that “my case paved the way for plaintiff lawyers to bring claims for hundreds of women who blame their ovarian cancer on exposure to talcum powder. As my lawyer said, I’m the equivalent of the first smokers who sued tobacco companies because of their lung cancer. The pioneers didn’t receive compensation, but the dangers and the conspiracy were finally exposed.”