Women across the country have accused Johnson & Johnson of concealing evidence – decades of evidence – that the company’s popular body powders can increase the risk for ovarian cancer. Since Deane Berg filed her first-of-its-kind lawsuit in 2013, thousands of other patients have learned, often with shock, that Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower To Shower products may play some part in the development of cancerous tumors.
J&J Takes “Angry” Position On Talc Science
Both products are made almost entirely from the mineral talc. Scientists first raised concerns over talc, after particles of the mineral were found embedded in cancerous tumors, during the early 1970s. Another scare, which found asbestos fibers in many talc-based body powders, made things worse. Most manufacturers quickly switched to cornstarch, replacing their talc-based powders with the versatile grain that accounts for a majority of US agricultural production.
Johnson & Johnson chose to split the difference, keeping its talc-based products on the market alongside a new branded cornstarch product.
The company has stood behind its use of talc, and continues to publish blog posts and articles on the mineral’s (now questionable) safety today. Their tone in the dispute, however, has rankled some legal observers. Michael Gordon, chief executive at a corporate public relations firm in New York, told CBS Money Watch:
“It’s clear that they are doubling down on talc as part of their response strategy. They are putting up a wall without an opportunity for any other side to the story, and their tone to me sounded angry at the victim, which is not a good long-term strategy.”
Patients aren’t convinced by the company’s approach to the controversy, either. It’s clear, they say, that something real is going on here. Since 1970, more than a dozen studies have found that women who frequently use talcum powders as a feminine hygiene product live at an increased risk for cancer.
For Many Scientists, Ovarian Cancer Risk Is Clear
While estimates of the risk vary widely, from 400% 92% to 40%, researchers like Harvard’s Daniel Cramer have little doubt that talc plays a role in ovarian cancer. In his Harvard Cancer Center profile, Cramer’s expert opinion couldn’t be clearer. Of the “three events […] associated with chronic inflammation [in] the lower or upper genital tract […] which increase risk for ovarian cancer,” Cramer puts “cosmetic talc powder use” at the top of the list.
But Johnson & Johnson’s constant – and apparently aggressive – pushback against the findings of scientists like Cramer has shaped the public debate, leaving some observers unpersuaded on the reality of a link between talc and ovarian cancer.
Despite Public’s Uncertainty, Berg Had Few Doubts
Back in 2013, the legal situation wasn’t much clearer. When Berg filed her lawsuit, the first to be brought against Johnson & Johnson over talcum powder, she was convinced of her case – but had no idea how the jury would react. Berg – a native of Sious Falls, South Dakota – was so convinced that she rejected a $1.3 million settlement offered prior to trial, because it would have meant signing a confidentiality clause. Instead, she went to trial. When the jury returned with its verdict, Berg learned in a single moment that she had both won – and lost.
In a strange turn of events, the jury had decided that Johnson & Johnson’s body powder products had contributed to Berg’s ovarian cancer. The jurors were also willing to say that the company had concealed vital safety information from the public, but unwilling to award Berg any compensation. That requires a unanimous verdict in South Dakota, the state in which Berg lives and where she filed her lawsuit.
“Blowing The Whistle”
But the case was “never about the money” for Berg, as she explained in an article written for the New York Post. Instead, it was about blowing the whistle on a corporation that she believes has allowed its search for profits to overshadow a commitment to people.
Berg compares herself to the first people who sued the tobacco industry in the 1950s. Despite their cases of lung cancers, those patients never received compensation, either, “but the dangers and the conspiracy were finally exposed.”
Thousands Of Women, Families Join Berg’s Fight
In the eyes of many ovarian cancer patients, Deane Berg is a pioneer. Her case opened the door for thousands of other women to file suit – and that’s precisely what people have done. Today, well over 2,000 patients and widowers have filed suit against Johnson & Johnson. Most of the claims are pending in a St. Louis state court, although attorneys say pockets of lawsuits have also been filed in Illinois and California. In New Jersey, where the corporation has its US headquarters, around 200 talcum powder lawsuits have been consolidated in a state court, with another trial set to begin in August.
It wouldn’t be farfetched to say that the door opened by Deane Berg has swung pretty wide. But it’s not just Berg who has made the wave of litigation possible. Two recent jury verdicts – both issued in St. Louis – have also found Johnson & Johnson liable for hiding talcum powder’s potential risks, awarding ovarian cancer patients and their surviving loved ones more than $127 million.
That’s given other patients and families hope for the future, as should more news from Sioux Falls: Deane Berg’s cancer is now in remission.