St. Louis jury awards $55M in Johnson & Johnson cancer suit

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Twice in the past three months, juries have awarded tens millions of dollars to ovarian cancer victims who blamed Johnson & Johnson talcum powder for their illness. (WPVI)

Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay $55 million to a woman who claims its talcum powder caused her ovarian cancer, the second such judgment against the manufacturer in three months.

The ruling in St. Louis late Monday comes amid ongoing debate about the link between the bathroom staple and deadly disease that is often detected too late for treatment.

Some studies suggest that women who regularly use talc face up to 40 percent higher risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Meanwhile, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson cites other medical evidence showing its products such as Johnson's Baby Powder and Shower to Shower are blameless.

"Unfortunately, the jury's decision goes against 30 years of studies by medical experts around the world that continue to support the safety of cosmetic talc," Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said in a statement announcing the company's plan to appeal.

"For over 100 years, Johnson & Johnson has provided consumers with a safe choice for cosmetic powder products and we will continue to work hard to exceed consumer expectations and evolving product preferences."

The jury deliberated eight hours Monday before ordering the company to pay $55 million to a South Dakota woman who blamed her ovarian cancer on years of talcum powder use.

The ruling followed a $72 million award in February from another St. Louis jury to the family of an Alabama woman who died from ovarian cancer, which she said was caused by using Johnson & Johnson's baby powder and other talcum products.

At least 1,200 other talcum powder-related lawsuits are pending, with about 1,000 of them in St. Louis, and another 200 in New Jersey, said Jim Onder, attorney for the plaintiffs in both of the recent cases.

Onder said researchers began connecting talcum powder to ovarian cancer in the 1970s, and that internal Johnson & Johnson documents show the company was aware of those studies.

"The evidence is real clear that Johnson & Johnson has known about the dangers associated with talcum powder for over 30 years," Onder said. "Instead of giving a warning, what they did was targeted the groups most at risk for developing ovarian cancer," specifically marketing to overweight women, blacks and Hispanics, he said.

A spokeswoman for Onder said Gloria Ristesund, the plaintiff in the latest case, declined comment.

Talc is naturally occurring, mined from the soil and composed of magnesium, silicon, oxygen, and hydrogen.

It's widely used in cosmetics and personal care products, such as talcum powder, to absorb moisture, prevent caking and improve the product's feel.

The American Cancer Society says most concerns about a link between talcum powder and cancer focus on two areas: Whether people with long-term exposure to natural talc fibers at work, such as talc miners, are at higher risk of lung cancer; and whether women who apply talc regularly in the genital area have increased risk of ovarian cancer.

The society, on its website, cites the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which classifies genital use of talc-based body powder as "possibly carcinogenic to humans."

Dr. Adetunji Toriola, a cancer epidemiologist at Washington University's Siteman Cancer Center in St. Louis, said case studies indicate that women who use talc increase their chances of developing ovarian cancer by 20 to 40 percent.

Toriola described ovarian cancer as very deadly and said it is often diagnosed too late.

"It's probably just safer not to use talc for that reason," he said.

In February, a St. Louis jury awarded $72 million to the family of Jackie Fox of Birmingham, Alabama.

Her son took over as plaintiff after his mother death in October at age 62. She had used the talcum powder for decades.

Johnson & Johnson previously has been targeted by health and consumer groups over possibly harmful ingredients in items including its iconic Johnson's No More Tears baby shampoo.

In May 2009, a coalition of groups called the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics began pushing Johnson & Johnson to eliminate questionable ingredients from its baby and adult personal care products.

After three years of petitions, negative publicity and a boycott threat, the company agreed in 2012 to eliminate the ingredients 1,4-dioxane and formaldehyde, both considered probable human carcinogens, from all products by 2015.

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