Relief for J&J? Large new study finds no clear link between talc and cancer

Johnson & Johnson faces nearly 17,000 lawsuits claiming harm from its talc powders. (Mike Mozart/Flickr. License: https://bit.ly/2Qx9Sml)

Johnson & Johnson just got some new ammo for its defense against lawsuits claiming its talc products caused ovarian cancer.

As the company fights with plaintiffs over the evidence in court, a new data analysis—the largest ever on the subject—found no statistically significant increase in cancer risk for powder users.

The data have some flaws, enough that one researcher called the results "ambiguous." And the study did flag some numerical differences in cancer cases among powder users and those who'd never used the products; the differences were largest in women who'd never had a hysterectomy or tubal ligation. But the numbers weren't large enough to clear the statistical significance bar.

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Investigators looked at pooled data from four large studies, creating a data set encompassing more than 252,745 women, some of whom had never used powders and others who had at some point in their lives. In total, 2,168 of the women developed ovarian cancer.

Comparing the case numbers, investigators found an 8% increased risk of ovarian cancer for women who reported ever using talc in the genital area. For powder users with an intact reproductive system, the increase in risk rose to 13% compared with those who never used powders.

Overall, 38% of women in the study reported using talc or another powder in the genital area, while 10% reported long-term use and 22% reported frequent use. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As Bloomberg points out, the study didn’t track which type of powder the women used—it could have been talc or cornstarch—and it didn’t examine whether the talc had contained asbestos.

It’s “not great data,” study author Katie O’Brien told the news service, but it’s still the biggest study on the topic and "probably will be for a very long time.” O'Brien told Reuters that despite the team's effort to provide clarity on the subject, the results were "ambiguous."

A J&J spokeswoman said the study "drew from data already gathered on tens of thousands of women followed over many years and reaches a conclusion that is consistent with the more than 40 years of independent research and clinical evidence that supports the safety of talc."

"We know that anyone suffering from cancer is searching for answers, which is why the science and facts on this topic are so important," she added. "The facts are that Johnson’s Baby Powder is safe, does not contain asbestos, and does not cause cancer.”

RELATED: Johnson & Johnson settles California talc case in middle of trial: Bloomberg 

The findings come as the drugmaker faces nearly 17,000 lawsuits claiming harm from talc. J&J has won several trials in recent months and won a series of appeals of jury verdicts against the company. As that streak played out, the drugmaker chose to settle a case in California this week for $2 million.

Complicating the company’s defense last fall was an FDA test of one talc bottle that turned up “sub-trace” levels of asbestos, prompting J&J to recall one lot of the product out of an “abundance of caution.” The company then tested the bottle and others, and those tests found no asbestos. For its part, the FDA stood by its testing results. 

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