The connection between using talcum powder for feminine hygiene purposes and running a higher risk of developing certain kinds of ovarian cancer is becoming clearer. The most recent evidence for a link comes from a case-controlled review of endothelial ovarian cancers (EOCs) among African American women. Researchers found that women who applied products containing talc to their genitals had a 40 percent higher incidence of the deadly disease than did women who reported no history of talcum powder use.
The researchers' conclusion, as stated in the May 2016 issue of the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, (CEBP), is that "body powder use was significantly associated with EOC risk." The endothelium forms the outer cover of an ovary. Cancers that develop in this tissue often prove fatal, with all types of ovarian cancers claiming around 14,400 Americans' lives each year.
The dangers posed by talcum powder were first widely acknowledged in the early 1980s. Reports were primarily anecdotal, however, with individual doctors and patients telling their stories and general reviews of case records failing to highlight a strong correlation between talc and cancer. The report in CEBP overcomes the methodological issues by matching cases of women with ovarian cancer who had used talcum powder with cases of cancer-free women who had not applied talc. Also, the incidence of EOC was significantly higher in women who applied talcum powder to all parts of their bodies, not merely their genitals.
One long-suspected reason talcum powder products led to cancer is that older formulations of the products included asbestos fibers, which are a known cause of mesothelioma. Physicians have since isolated talc in cancerous endothelial tissue, making the mineral itself a strong candidate for being carcinogenic.
Several lawsuits have ended with the leading U.S. manufacturer of talcum powder, Johnson & Johnson, being held liable for marketing a dangerous product and being negligent in not warning women of ovarian cancer risks. Those trials have also brought to light Johnson & Johnson's deliberate marketing of talc-containing feminine hygiene products to African American women and other minority consumers. As reported by Reuters on June 2, 2016, "In the 1990s, Johnson and Johnson outlined a plan to hike flagging sales of its powder 'by targeting' black and Hispanic women, according to a company memorandum."
All health, cosmetic and hygiene products carry some risk. Manufacturers have legal and ethical obligations to alert customers to potential dangers. When a company fails to meet those obligations -- or even goes so far as to deny risks while marketing unclear benefits -- it must be held accountable to victims of its obfuscation and dishonesty.