Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has lost another high profile legal case over claims that the company’s talcum powder is carcinogenic. On 12 July, a jury in Missouri ordered J&J to pay nearly $4.7 billion (£3.6 billion) in damages to 22 ovarian cancer patients and their families. The company has had mixed results countering more than 9000 lawsuits from ovarian cancer patients over its baby powder, but this case is the first to focus on asbestos in the product.

‘The jury saw the very first evidence that J&J has been failing to tell the authorities that their talc has been riddled with asbestos for the last five decades,’ says Mark Lanier, the attorney for the 22 women who sued the company. He adds that medical experts testified during the Missouri trial that microscopic asbestos fibres enter the body when talcum powder is inhaled or applied to the genital area, and that fibres and talcum powder particles were found in the ovarian tissues of many of the women.

Lanier also says that the jury found that J&J had failed to exercise care in how they manufactured and marketed their powder, and that the company was reckless in its disregard for the welfare of others. ‘The final finding was that all of this contributed to cause the ovarian cancer of the 22 plaintiffs.’

J&J has been accused of at least partly funding supposedly independent research that found talcum powder is not carcinogenic. While J&J still sells baby powder that contains talcum, the company now offers an alternative cornstarch version.

Not ‘intimidated’

The implications of the jury’s ruling could be significant, Lanier suggests. ‘Hopefully the authorities will order that the records we have be given to the [US Food and Drug Administration] and others for their examination so this product can come off the market,’ he tells Chemistry World.

J&J has issued a statement saying it is ‘deeply disappointed’ by the verdict. ‘The courts haven’t caught up to the science,’ the company’s lead attorney Bart William told CNBC. ‘Johnson & Johnson doesn’t believe in putting a cancer warning on a product that doesn’t cause cancer. Johnson & Johnson doesn’t believe that it should be intimated into removing a product that has been out for over 100 years… simply because plaintiffs’ lawyers have decided to put a target on the back of Johnson & Johnson.’

The company said it is confident that its products neither contain asbestos nor cause ovarian cancer, and it intends to ‘pursue all available appellate remedies’. J&J also said that ‘every verdict against Johnson & Johnson in this court that has gone through the appeals process has been reversed and the multiple errors present in this trial were worse than those in the prior trials which have been reversed’.

A number of verdicts have been overturned, including a $417 million award to an ovarian cancer patient.