Johnson & Johnson is being investigated by the SEC over fears its baby powder may cause cancer — here's how worried you should be

ShutterstockBaby powder use has been linked to some cancer cases, but does that mean it’s dangerous?
  • Johnson & Johnson is being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission after questions surfaced about the safety of the company’s baby powder.
  • The investigation and subpoenas come on the heels of a Reuters report that suggested the company knew for years that its baby powder contained small amounts of asbestos, which is a human carcinogen.
  • The reason there could be asbestos in baby powder is that one of the primary ingredients is talc: a mineral that’s often found and mined near asbestos.
  • Unfortunately, most of the scientific studies to date on baby powder have relied on flawed methods. The evidence we do have doesn’t suggest it directly increases cancer risk in a serious way.
  • Johnson & Johnson hasn’t released any information to the public about how much asbestos is or was in their product.

Let’s be clear: If you know that your baby powder is pure, there’s nothing dangerous about slapping some on a newborn or sprinkling a little bit in some smelly shoes.

But for Johnson & Johnson, which has come under fire recently due to concerns about contamination in its baby powders, billions of dollars are now riding on a few tricky questions. The first is: did the company know that its powder may have contained some asbestos when they sold it? And second, if there was asbestos in the baby powder, how much was there, and was it enough to cause harm?

The questions stem from the use of talcum powder in baby powder; talc can sometimes be contaminated with asbestos – a known cancer-causer – because the two naturally occurring Earth minerals are often mined in close proximity.

Johnson & Johnson disclosed on Wednesday that federal regulators were raising questions about the company’s baby powders in a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

That federal investigation comes on the heels of a series of lawsuits about baby powder, some decades in the making. The most recent suit was decided in July: A jury in Missouri ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay up $US4.7 billion to 22 women who claimed the company’s baby powder caused their cases of ovarian cancer.

The company maintains that’s not the case.

“Johnson & Johnson remains confident that its products do not contain asbestos and do not cause ovarian cancer,” the company said in a statement after that verdict was announced.

Questions remain about Johnson & Johnson’s product

There are clues that suggest Johnson & Johnson baby powder may have had some asbestos in it, and that people inside the company knew about it. In December 2018, a Reuters investigation revealed internal documents from the company that showed that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, “the company’s raw talc and finished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos.”

After that Reuters report, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said again that there was no asbestos in the company’s products.

“We know that our talc is safe,” Gorsky said in a video message on the company’s website. He added that the company uses the “purest, safest, pharmaceutical-grade talc on Earth,” and that the baby powder “does not cause cancer or asbestos-related disease.”

Read More: 32 of the most scientifically sound things you can do right now to reduce your risk of developing cancer

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a study from 2009 to 2010 that checked 34 different talc cosmetic products, including baby powders, and found no asbestos fibres. Another study of earlier powders in the 1960s and 70s also found no evidence of asbestos. But Johnson & Johnson has not yet revealed any internal information about asbestos tests or concentrations, and without that specific data, it’s hard to know exactly what was or is in its baby powder.

The messy link between talc and asbestos

Asbestos miners have been diagnosed with lung cancer for centuries, but the studies investigating whether talc miners get lung cancer are mixed.

“To prevent contamination of talc with asbestos, it is essential to select talc mining sites carefully and take steps to purify the ore sufficiently,” the FDA says on its website.

Some studies have suggested there’s a link between using talc and getting cancer – women who use baby powder report higher instances of ovarian cancer than others. But even the researchers behind those studies are sceptical about their results, since most of that research was conducted by surveying women about their powder use years later.

Epidemiologist Joellen Schildkraut, a professor of public health at the University of Virginia, has said that studies to date on talc powder and cancer – including some of her own – don’t meet scientific criteria for causality. Part of the problem, Schildkraut said, is that media coverage and publicity that call into question the safety of baby powder have skewed people’s perceptions and memories. That can influence how they report their use of the powders.

“We did see a relationship,” between powder use and cancer, she told Business Insider. “But we also detected some bias in the way our data was collected.”

In other words, after reports about baby powder contamination gained attention, more people in the studies started reporting they’d used talc powder in the past.

“That’s a big flag,” Schildkraut said. “I don’t think you can be conclusive. I don’t think the data are conclusive.”

Cancer epidemiologist Paul Pharoah is a leading expert on baby powder risks and a professor at the University of Cambridge. He agrees with Schildkraut.

“It’s almost impossible for science to prove a negative,” he told Business Insider. “That’s one of the issues around conspiracy theories in science. You can’t prove to the conspiracy theorist the fact that something doesn’t exist.”

Pharoah acknowledged, however, that he has a potential conflict of interest here: He was once a paid consultant for one of Johnson & Johnson’s law firms. But he maintains that his “opinion pre-dates any payment.”

Pharoah said it doesn’t make sense that women who use baby powder regularly would have higher ovarian cancer rates but not higher rates of any other cancers in that area of the body. There’s no suggestion of increased frequency of cervical, vaginal, or endometrial cancer in women who use talc, he added.

“If it were really causing cancer, you would have thought that would have been a problem, but it isn’t,” Pharoah said, adding, “if you dust talcum powder on your genitals, it’s got quite a long way to go in a woman before it gets to the tissues of the ovary.”

The US National Institutes of Health and other researchers around the world have also found no evidence that increased genital exposure to talc ups a woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer.

Pharoah even worries that the recent court cases could cause undue anguish for some women – “because if women get ovarian cancer, they may well beat themselves up about the fact that they used talc in the past,” he said.

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