By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer
Johnson & Johnson will soon end baby powder sales in North American stores, CNBC reported. The company has been plagued with a litany of lawsuits by customers claiming a link between the iconic product and ovarian cancer, though they stand by its safety. A doctor and Great Courses educator weighs in.
According to CNBC, demand for Johnson’s® baby powder has fallen off dramatically since a number of lawsuits emerged claiming the product caused ovarian cancer. “The consumer and medical goods giant, which makes everything from TYLENOL® to AVEENO® lotions, has repeatedly denied the allegations,” the article said. “While trusted for decades, the brand had fallen out of touch with consumers, namely millennial moms, who opted instead for cleaner, natural products from trendy upstart brands.”
The Proof Is in the Powder
Many women have claimed that using Johnson’s baby powder on their perineum or nearby it has caused them to contract ovarian cancer, leading the conglomerate to pay billions in damages over the years. However, there seems to be plenty of conflicting evidence about these claims. Older studies appear to support these claims, but is it that simple?
“Most of those [studies] are what are called ‘cohort studies’—done retrospectively,” said Dr. Roy Benaroch, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. “What you do is you collect a group of women who have ovarian cancer and another group of women that doesn’t have ovarian cancer, and you ask them to think back over the last 10 or 15 or 20 years, ‘Did you use this talcum powder?’
“And the problem with these studies is that women who have ovarian cancer and read in the news that it may be associated with talcum powder, I think that they’re more likely to think of a time that they used it.”
Dr. Benaroch was quick to point out that these older studies aren’t completely unreliable, but we shouldn’t disregard them. He added that any potential link between cancer and a consumer product should be taken seriously and looked at and tested. However, there are better testing methods out there, like a “prospective design” model study, which also tells a somewhat different story.
“[With prospective design] you start with a very, very large group of women, and then going forward, you continue to collect data on their talcum powder,” he said. “So perhaps you ask them once a month or every six months to fill out a questionnaire—are they using it, which brand are they using—and you get some information. You watch these women for 10 or 15 years and you see how many of them are diagnosed with ovarian cancer.”
Dr. Benaroch said a prospective study of 250,000 women was recently completed that didn’t show a significant association of ovarian cancer with the ones who used talcum powder.
Asbestos, Lead, Asbestos
The underlying concern regarding Johnson’s baby powder is that it may contain asbestos. However, asbestos has been a known carcinogen for quite some time. How could it still be getting into household products?
Dr. Benaroch said that both talc and asbestos are naturally occurring minerals in nature. Talc is mined for products like baby powder, and it’s possible for miners to accidentally mine neighboring asbestos as well. Chemical processes are used to purify and extract toxins like asbestos from products, just as machines are used to detect it, but sometimes these processes and machines fail.
Nearly every city in the United States, he said, experiences lead in the soil due to the industrial footprint we leave, but it’s in such small amounts that it’s rarely a concern. Differences in testing machines may play a part as well.
“An independent lab claimed to find asbestos in this product and then Johnson & Johnson scientists didn’t find it, and that’s the kind of thing that makes juries uncomfortable,” Dr. Benaroch said. “J&J has maintained that their testing has never shown asbestos contamination, at least since the 1970s. The U.S. government collected samples from multiple manufacturers in the early 2010s through government agencies and government testing facilities, and they didn’t find any asbestos in any talc products either.”
The Second Opinion
Despite significant evidence to the contrary, juries continue to decide that there’s a link between talc-based baby powder and ovarian cancer. These court rulings align with a recent trend of putting faith in a select few online articles on a subject while distrusting experts and career professionals. Medical, scientific, legal, and other authorities on various subjects have been increasingly swept under the rug in recent years—but why?
“There are several things that have contributed, but most of us will agree that one of them is the internet—the internet is a great source of information, but reading a few articles doesn’t make you an expert,” Dr. Benaroch said. “Real experts have spent their entire careers studying a subject, and as you become more and more of an expert, you realize not only what you know and what the experts know, but you have a good understanding of the weaknesses in your knowledge.
“The internet offers wonderful and very, very good and helpful information that’s helped a lot of people, but I think it’s turned a lot of people into ‘armchair experts’ and it ends up doing some harm.”
Additionally, Dr. Benaroch said that answers to big questions rarely come in simple cut-and-dry form, but rather a complex set of information. He hinted at the idea that being too stubborn in one’s beliefs also harms the scientific process and that adaptation to new evidence is key in attaining true knowledge of a subject.
“Real experts are willing to admit that there are grey zones and there are uncertainties, but just a superficial reading of a topic may lead someone to believe that the science is very clear and black and white, and that’s rarely the case,” he said. “We need to make the best decisions based on the best evidence—there are a lot of things we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean the scientists are wrong. Part of the process of science is learning and refining and, yes, changing your mind when there’s new evidence.
“Being able to change one’s mind is actually the mark of a good scientist.”
Dr. Roy Benaroch contributed to this article. Dr. Benaroch is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. He earned his B.S. in Engineering at Tulane University, followed by his M.D. at Emory University. He completed his residency through Emory University’s affiliated hospitals in 1997, serving as chief resident and instructor of pediatrics in 1998.