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Furore over baby care products and cancer

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Photo: Fordham Law News

Recent reports have associated baby and beauty care products with cancer and other health-related issues.

The bone of contention is talc, which is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used in many body powders for generations. It can be found in all kinds of cosmetic and care items, including baby powder, blush and foundation.

Talc has been a popular ingredient for many years and has been scientifically shown to be safe to use.

In fact, a consultant pharmacist and immediate past President of Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), Olumide Akintayo, told The Guardian: “Talcum powder ordinarily remains an inert substance which will not induce cancer.”

Akintayo said asbestos fibres on the other hand are well known carcinogen, which will invariably generate cancers in the face of repeated use and exposure.

He, however, said manufacturers of medicines are globally renowned for ensuring strict quality control and assurance in the production process but negligence and other non-compliance with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) may however promote contamination in the manufacture of drug products and therefore lead to the scenario associated with multinational firm Johnson & Johnson.

Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson range of baby care products including Talcum powder are registered in Nigeria by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) after passing safety and toxicity tests.

Legal battles

In the latest turn of events, a couple suing Johnson & Johnson over talcum powder wins $37 million judgment.

According to a report by Reuters and FoxNews, an investment banker from New Jersey, United States, and his wife walked out $37 million richer from a court in New Brunswick, last Thursday, after a jury ordered Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and a talc mining company to pay for causing him to develop a deadly cancer linked to asbestos.

Bloomberg reported that the verdict is the first time a jury has backed a consumer’s claims that the company’s baby powder causes mesothelioma.

Stephen Lanzo, who said he developed the often-fatal lung cancer after inhaling dust that was generated through his regular use of J&J talc powder products since 1972, brought the lawsuit.

According to Lanzo’s lawyers, officials of J&J and Imerys, its talc supplier, were worried that asbestos was tainting talc and other products as early as 1969.

The jury awarded Lanzo $30 million and his wife $7 million in compensatory damages.

“While we are disappointed with this decision, the jury has further deliberations to conduct in this trial and we will reserve additional comment until the case is fully completed,” Carol Goodrich, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson, said in a statement to NJ Advance Media.

The Lanzos did not respond to Reuters request for comment.

According to reports by Reuters, J&J, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, faces talc-related lawsuits by 6,610 plaintiffs nationally, largely based on claims it failed to warn women about the risk of developing ovarian cancer by using its products for feminine hygiene.

Also, Johnson & Johnson was, last year, hit with a multimillion-dollar jury verdict for the fourth time over whether the talc in its iconic baby powder causes ovarian cancer when applied regularly for feminine hygiene.

A St. Louis jury awarded $110.5 million to Lois Slemp, 62, of Wise, Virginia, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012. She blames her illness on her use of the company’s talcum-containing products for more than 40 years.

Besides Slemp’s case, three other jury trials in St. Louis reached similar outcomes last year, awarding the plaintiffs $72 million, $70.1 million and $55 million, for a combined total of $307.6 million.

However, the company said its product is safe, and appealed the verdict, as it has the other three.

Johnson & Johnson also has had some legal victories, including in March 2017 when a St. Louis jury rejected the claims of a Tennessee woman with ovarian and uterine cancer.

Also, two cases in New Jersey were thrown out by a judge who said the plaintiffs’ lawyers hadn’t presented reliable evidence that talc leads to ovarian cancer.

Scientific evidence

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer arm of the World Health Organization, said genital use of talc-based body powder is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

According to the American Cancer Society, some talc in its natural form contains asbestos, which is known to cause cancers in and around the lungs when inhaled. “All talcum products used in homes in the United States have been asbestos-free since the 1970s,” the American Cancer Society said on its website.

The United States Food and Drug Administration said it has looked into this and has not found any asbestos in the products it checked.

“The evidence about asbestos-free talc, which is still widely used, is less clear,” the American Cancer Society said.

Some studies on animals have shown that talc can cause tumours, but others have not. Studies exploring potential links between talcum powder an ovarian cancer in women who use talc-based feminine hygiene products have also had mixed results.

The most reliable types of studies, which do not rely on a woman’s memory of whether she used talc, have shown no evidence talcum powder causes ovarian cancer.

“No increased risk of lung cancer has been reported with the use of cosmetic talcum powder,” the American Cancer Society said.

Meanwhile, other reports allege that the No More Tears baby shampoo from Johnson & Johnson contained formaldehyde, which has been shown to cause cancer and is most well known for its use in embalming dead bodies.

Formaldehyde has a very strong smell, and it is highly flammable. It is a clear liquid that is used in dozens of different products including cleaning solutions, building materials, glue, fabrics, paper products and insulation materials.

It is also used commercially for its anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and disinfectant properties.

Although the long-term research on formaldehyde hasn’t been completely finished, there are several signs that point to it as a carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent.

There have been a number of studies that show that it does indeed cause cancer in both rats and humans and studies of people that work around embalming fluid like embalmers have shown that they have a higher rate of cancer than other groups.

Civil Societies kick

Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization, listed concerns over Johnson and Johnson’s multiple additive exposure sources; skin, eye, and lung irritants; cytotoxic ingredients; endocrine disruptors; neurotoxins; and bio-accumulative carcinogens.

Two of the most concerning ingredients are Quaternium-15 and 1,4 dioxane.

Quaternium-15 releases formaldehyde, a well-known carcinogen that causes watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation. Daily exposure is linked with leukemia and brain cancer.

Other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals allegedly used by Johnson & Johnson include DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, and Diazolidinyl urea.

The EWG summarized this problem:
*82 per cent of children are exposed every week to one or more ingredients with the potential to harm the brain and nervous system.

*69 per cent of children are exposed every week to one or more ingredients that may disrupt the hormone system, and 3.6 per cent of children are exposed to ingredients with strong data linking them to cancer, including chemicals classified as known or probable human carcinogens.

*80 per cent of children’s products marked as gentle and non-irritating contain ingredients linked to allergies and skin or eye irritation according to government and industry sources.

EWG’s vice president for research, Jane Houlihan, explained why children are exposed to so many toxins on a daily basis. “Children are more at risk than adults from many chemical hazards, but we have no special standards to protect them.”

“The safety of baby products falls under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but unlike for drugs and food additives, the FDA has no power to require that cosmetics are tested for safety before they are sold.

And due to other loopholes in the law, manufacturers are free to use any claim they wish, such as ‘safe’ and ‘ultra mild’ without proof, and many do just that

Johnson & Johnson defense

According to a report by CNN, Dr. Patricia Judson-Lancaster, an obstetrician-gynaecologist now based in Utah US, has testified on behalf of Johnson & Johnson. In Giannecchini’s case, she said, “Talc has no relevance to ovarian cancer.”

“Cancer is caused by genetic mutations,” she told the jury. “We don’t know what causes those gene mutations in ovarian cancer, but we specifically know from studies that talc does not cause mutations in genes,” she said, reiterating, “Talc does not cause gene mutations.

“Talc is not the cause,” she emphasized. “I almost wish it was the cause; it would be such the simple thing to do.”

Joshua Muscat, a professor of public health sciences in the college of medicine at Penn State who also has testified for Johnson & Johnson as an expert, agrees that there is no link. He authored a review article looking at past studies about talc use in the genital area.

“We conclude that the weak statistical associations observed in a number of epidemiological studies do not support a causal association,” he said. Unlike most other scientists, he said he doesn’t think more research on the topic is necessary. He thinks the issue is settled.

Williams, one of the lawyers for Johnson & Johnson, said that “hard science” studies in animals and human cells, compared with epidemiological studies that show a possible association, do not show that talc causes cancer, and that’s the key.

“The most compelling argument, I think, is trying to get juries to focus on the notion that correlations or association is not the same as causation,” Williams said. “So an example we use is bald men and hats.

Just because bald men wear hats more often than men who have a full head of hair doesn’t mean that wearing the hats makes their hair fall out.

There is an association, a correlation, but there isn’t a cause there. Wearing a hat has nothing to do with male pattern baldness, scientists will tell you.”


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