Like millions of women around the world, Jacqueline Fox routinely used talcum powder for its freshening properties, adding a dash of the stuff to her underpants every day. For the Birmingham, Alabama native, Johnson & Johnson’s baby powders “became second nature, like brushing your teeth,” her son Marvin Salter would later tell the New York Times.
From Toilet To Nursery: The Truth About Talcum Powder
Fox’s daily reliance on talcum powder isn’t unusual; it’s downright American. US consumers purchase nearly $374 million worth of Johnson & Johnson baby powders every year. We’ve been buying baby powder since 1894, the year a J&J scientist had the bright idea to package a fine white dust (99.8% talc) as “Baby Powder: for toilet and nursery.” More than a century later, most baby powder sales still come from women, and most of those women use talcum powder as a feminine hygiene product.
But until recently, few women knew that some baby powders, including Johnson & Johnson’s two most popular brands, may be hiding a dark secret. Jackie Fox certainly had no idea. When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013, Fox could never have suspected that the disease was connected to her habitual use of baby powder.
Doubt Turns To Shock As Women Learn Of Cancer Link
Then she saw a commercial from a group of talcum powder lawyers, experienced professionals representing potential victims in court. Long-term use of baby powders that contain the mineral talc had been linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer, the commercial said. Fox, of course, wasn’t convinced by one commercial. Nor was her son Marvin, who would explain in an interview that both he and his mother “were a bit skeptical at first. It has to be safe. It’s put on babies. It’s been around forever. Why haven’t we heard about any ill effects?”
There’s a lot consumers don’t know about baby powder. For one thing, the vast majority of pediatricians say powders of any kind are dangerous for babies. So does the American Academy of Pediatricians. Inhaling fine particles can cause a host of respiratory ailments, especially for young, vulnerable lungs. But of course, manufacturers haven’t been particularly forthcoming with that information. On the company’s website, Johnson & Johnson describes the “incredible” properties of their own simply-titled Baby Powder in this way:
“With a clean, classic scent, this incredibly soft baby powder formula glides over your baby’s skin to eliminate friction and leave it feeling delicately soft and dry while providing soothing comfort.”
They haven’t gone very far to publicize more than 30 years of research linking routine use of talcum powder to ovarian cancer, either. That’s right. 30 years, from a 1971 report of talc particles embedded in ovarian tumors to current epidemiological studies including thousands of participants. But Jacqueline Fox didn’t know any of this in the spring of 2013. All she knew was that she had cancer. So she picked up the phone and called the talcum powder attorneys.
“It Was Really Clear They Were Hiding Something”
Guided by her talc lawyers, Fox learned everything she could about the research surrounding talcum-based baby powders. She found out that cancer-causing asbestos fibers had been found in talc powders during the 1970s, leading most manufacturers to switch over to cornstarch. Except for Johnson & Johnson, that is. The company, which sells more baby powder than any other corporation, had continued to use talc in its products, and argued aggressively against any association between talc and ovarian cancer. Scientists, on the other hand, were still turning up evidence of a link to cancer, even after asbestos had been removed from the powders.
After she filed her own talcum powder cancer lawsuit, joining thousands of women who are still pursuing Johnson & Johnson in court, Fox and her talc attorneys gained access to thousands of internal corporate documents. In several memos, company representatives seemed to admit the potential dangers of their product.
A juror in Fox’s case would later point to these memos as the decisive factor in her own thought process: ” it was really clear they were hiding something.” The need to warn consumers, however, was never acknowledged by the corporation’s top brass. Instead, Johnson & Johnson spearheaded a group of cosmetic companies dedicated to fighting against each new study tooth-and-nail, clawing away at researchers’ credibility and questioning women’s ability to remember how much talcum powder they had actually used.
Ovarian Cancer Risk Threatens “Trusted” Brand
Baby powder is important to Johnson & Johnson. At around $374 million in annual revenues, the product is by no means a top-seller; the company itself is worth about $70 billion. But baby powder has a symbolic power that goes far beyond money.
In blind tests, the scent of baby powder is recognized more frequently than chocolate, coconut or mothballs, according to Bloomberg. It’s nostalgic and evocative, intimately tied to memories of childhood, unsullied by worry and adult cares. That’s powerful, and the initial success of its baby powder allowed Johnson & Johnson to develop a $2 billion baby care division.
Anything that threatened the public perception of baby powder as a safe household essential, Fox’s talc attorneys argued, posed a direct threat to Johnson & Johnson.
Talcum Powder Lawsuit Ends In Stunning Verdict
As her lawsuit progressed, Fox’s health worsened. Finally, after three years, vigorous rounds of chemotherapy and surgeries to remove her uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes and portions of her spleen and colon, Jacqueline Fox succumbed to the cancer. Her son Marvin would not. He took on his mother’s role as lead Plaintiff and continued to fight her case, which reached a jury verdict in October 2015.
Out of 12 jurors, 10 found Johnson & Johnson liable for negligence, conspiracy and failure to warn women of the potential risk of using talcum-based powders as a feminine hygiene product. Fox’s estate was awarded more than her talcum powder lawyer had asked for, at $10 million in compensatory damages and $62 million in punitive damages.
After 2 Plaintiff Victories, Road Ahead Looks Rocky For J&J
The public, understandably shocked by the jury’s verdict, would be shocked again after another talcum powder lawsuit ended with a Missouri state court jury finding against Johnson & Johnson. In this second case, Gloria Ristesund, who was forced to undergo hysterectomy after her cancer diagnosis, was awarded $5 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages. Two major losses in a row, Ristesund’s talcum powder lawyer told Reuters, should be enough to “end the litigation” and force Johnson & Johnson to settle more than 1,000 other lawsuits alleging the same kind of wrongdoing.
The company, however, has shown no sign of offering other Plaintiffs settlements. That means thousands of women may still be eligible to file lawsuits of their own.