So far this month, Johnson & Johnson’s stock has fallen to $122 per share from $147, obliterating $45 billion in market value. On Dec. 14, Reuters published an investigation suggesting the company knew for years that its baby powder contained asbestos, a carcinogen. In July, J&J was ordered to pay $4.69 billion in damages to 22 plaintiffs over claims that the asbestos contained in its talcum powder contributed to their ovarian cancer. The company now faces thousands of additional lawsuits; by some estimates, it could end up paying out $20 billion.
Let’s back up. Baby powder, aka talcum powder, contains talc, a mineral that in its natural form can contain asbestos. Asbestos is a known carcinogen. It stands to reason that years spent putting talc on baby butts and lady parts might lead to cancer. While J&J says its baby powder hasn’t contained asbestos since the 1970s, Reuters’ investigation noted that trace amounts were found in baby powder produced in later years.
But the science is not so damning. Studies simply don’t support the idea that talcum powder caused cancer.
Over the years, scientists have done observational studies on the relationship between talcum powder and cancer. These studies, in which scientists keep track of a population over time, are tricky because they rely heavily on participants’ self-reports, and because it can be challenging to isolate the effect of one factor in something as complex as cancer. Some of the studies have found that talcum powder is associated with a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. But they can’t say that it causes it. ”I think part of the difficulty is that the data is not consistent either for or against the association,” Don Dizon, the clinical co-director of gynecologic oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, told me in 2016.
Even if talcum powder is associated with higher risk of ovarian cancer, that risk seems fairly low in the grand scheme of things. In a 2013 review of these types of observational studies, British cancer charity Ovacome noted in its fact sheet:
Even if the risk of ovarian cancer is increased, studies suggest that using talc increases the risk of ovarian cancer by around a third. Although this may sound frightening, to put it into context, smoking and drinking increases the risk of esophageal cancer by 30 times. Ovarian cancer is a rare disease, and increasing a small risk by a third still gives a small risk.
The science is so weak, in fact, that judges in California and New Jersey have tossed out cases against J&J due to the plaintiffs’ lack of evidence. Notably, the July case was decided by a jury and upheld by a judge in appeal.
As more of these cases move into the appeal phase, Bloomberg opinion columnist Joe Nocera notes that more input from judges may end up working in J&J’s favor:
The point is, even if J&J’s talcum powder did contain trace amounts of asbestos, something the company denies, the science strongly suggests it does not cause widespread incidents of ovarian cancer. Juries can often be swayed by damning-sounding corporate documents. But judges, particularly appeals court judges, tend to be more impressed by what the science says.