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Health concerns over talc continue as U.S. courts sift through evidence


In the latest news concerning the link between ovarian cancer and Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder, a New Jersey judge has made a ruling that could influence the outcome of over 200 pending talc lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

After a hearing involving expert testimony and review of the parties’ briefing, Judge Nelson Johnson ruled that the talc suits of two women, Brandi Carl and Diana Balderrama, did not show sufficient scientific evidence that clearly linked the use of the Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder to ovarian cancer. While the two trials were slated to begin in October, Judge Johnson dismissed both of the cases last week in a 33-page ruling, which found expert testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs did not provide reliable evidence that the defendant’s product actually caused the disease.

This is a big win for pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods giant, Johnson & Johnson, especially in the wake of two landmark losses in St. Louis earlier this year—where juries awarded $72 million and $55 million in damages to women suing the company. While the ruling will not directly affect cases pending in St. Louis or in federal courts, certainly the reasoning of the opinion could influence future rulings in both venues.

One of the challenging hurdles in any mass tort litigation in involving the cause of cancer, is that the very nature of cancer is a disease that can develop over a long period of time and can be influenced by factors such as genetics, behaviors and environmental exposures. Therefore, experts typically will apply a differential diagnosis, eliminating other causes and risk factors, so as to show exposure to a drug was, more likely than not, the cause of the cancer. But first, however, plaintiffs must prove generally that the drug or product can cause cancer.

In this case, there are multiple epidemiological studies which suggest a direct link between talc use and cancer. This is supported by the recent rulings in Missouri. Medical studies dating back to the 1990s prove a connection between talc and ovarian cancer—and earlier trials have produced documentation that suggests Johnson and Johnson had been aware of the potential relationship for decades.

We will have to wait and see how the remaining cases play out in the courtroom to reach any general consensus as to whether or not Johnson and Johnson will be held liable for its talc causing ovarian cancer in women. Until then, epidemiologist Dr. Anne McTiernan with Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center offers the best advice for continued application of the product in this manner: “If there’s any doubt, why should anyone use it?”

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