Popular baby powder linked to cancer

Friday February 26 2016

Johnson baby powder and shower to shower are some of the products by the company used on babies and are found in almost all Kenyan supermarkets and beauty shops. PHOTO | COURTESY

Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder. The company has been ordered to pay $417 million to a woman who claimed she developed terminal ovarian cancer after using the company's talc-based products. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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A popular baby powder has been linked to ovarian cancer and the manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, fined more than Sh7.2 billion by a US court.

Johnson Baby Powder and Shower to Shower are some of the products made by the company for babies and are found in almost all Kenyan supermarkets and beauty shops.

Jackie Fox from the US state of Alabama said her ovarian cancer, diagnosed in 2013, was linked to the use of the two talc-based items.

Talc, or talcum powder, is a component in beauty products made of magnesium, silicon and oxygen. It is also known to contain traces of asbestos, a substance that causes cancer.

Ms Fox, now deceased, said she used the products for “feminine hygiene” for more than 35 years and believed they were responsible for her terminal illness.

On Monday, a Missouri jury found the multinational medical devices, pharmaceutical and consumer goods manufacturer liable for causing her cancer and consequently ordered it to compensate Ms Fox’s family.

Ms Krista Smith, a member of the jury, called the company’s internal documents “decisive” for jurors, who reached the verdict.

“It was clear they were hiding something. All they had to do was put a warning label on the containers,” she said.

Kenyans on Facebook shared information on the US verdict widely, with some recounting their experiences with the products.

Jocelyn Bogdan, writing on the Kilimani Mums (Nairobi) page, said among other things: “This settlement has been coming. I don’t consider any of their products safe and would never use them on my children.”

Tina le Twig, said: “I used their oil on my son. My goodness!! Just once and he looked like he was growing scales. The powder is no better.”

The case is one of 1,200 other lawsuits brought against the multinational by American customers, who say they were not told about the risks of using the products.

In these cases, the women say the company knew of the risks but deliberately failed to warn its customers. Ms Fox’s family presented the same argument.

Evidence on the safety of talc is not conclusive, though. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, classifies talc as “possibly carcinogenic”.

Coincidentally, according to Cancer Research UK, talc is used to relieve symptoms of lung problems.

Doctors apply sterile talc directly to the lining of the lungs, but there is no evidence that this causes cancer.

The Missouri case is the first in which a jury has awarded damages over Johnson & Johnson’s talc products.

In 2013, a federal jury in North Dakota found that a woman’s use of its talc-based body powder contributed to her developing ovarian cancer.

However, the panel did not award any damages.

In a bid to allay customers' fears, Johnson & Johnson posted a statement on its website saying talc used “in all our global production is carefully selected and processed to be asbestos-free, which is confirmed by regular testing conducted since the 1970s”.

“The US Centres for Disease Control, which identifies potential risk factors, has not identified talc as a risk factor for ovarian cancer,” the statement says.