Approximately 20,000 women have filed lawsuits against Johnson and Johnson (J & J), alleging that the company’s iconic talcum baby powder, which the company no longer sells in North America, caused them to develop ovarian cancer. The majority who have filed claims are African American.
The lawsuits also accuse J & J of failing to disclose to the FDA or the public the inherent danger posed by crushed talc, which may sometimes become tainted with asbestos, a mineral that’s mined in very close proximity to talc. Internal J & J documents obtained by Reuters reveal that at least since the early 1970s, the company knew that its talc powder could contain asbestos.
Long-term inhalation of asbestos has been linked to mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs as well as other organs.
As for a definitive link between asbestos and ovarian cancer, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association published January 7 of this year examined over 250,000 women with a history of using baby powder in the genital area. Based on the data, the study authors concluded there was not a statistically significant association between use of powder in the genital area and ovarian cancer.
However, the study had two major shortcomings. First, the participants in the observational study were overwhelmingly caucasian. This is problematic because research shows African American women use baby powder at higher rates, compared to white women. And second, the study failed to distinguish between cornstarch-derived baby powder and talc-derived baby powder. The former contains no asbestos.
A recent podcast of Bodies, produced by the Los Angeles public radio station, KCRW, featured the episode “The Cost of Silky Soft,” (listen to it here or read the full transcript), in which an African American female with a long history of using talc powder all over her body is profiled; the talc user developed ovarian cancer.
According to the episode, internal documents not only reveal that J & J withheld the inherent risks of talcum powder, they also show that the company decided to target their advertising of the controversial product towards African American women in the early 1990s, due to declining sales to white women.
And despite the fact that the World Health Organization said in 2006 that using talcum powder in the genital area is possibly carcinogenic, J&J “doubled down on its marketing efforts to African American women,” says podcast host Allison Behringer.
Another Reuters report from last year replete with J&J advertisements from decades ago aimed at minorities, claims the company’s strategy to get minorities hooked on talc baby powder included handing out free samples out at predominantly African-American churches and beauty salons.
This put minority communities at a greater health risk. According to Reuters, as early as 1992, the company keyed in on the sales potential with minority women, citing statistics in an internal memo from that year that listed the usage rates for talc baby powder at 52 percent among African-Americans and about 38 percent among Hispanic customers. Rates of both ethnicities were far more than the general population.
Michelle Ferranti, a researcher featured in the podcast episode, wrote an essay in Advertising & Society Review titled An Odor of Racism: Vaginal Deodorants in African-American Beauty Culture and Advertising. The essay implies that companies such as Johnson & Johnson essentially delivered a message to black women on a larger scale than to whites, insinuating that vaginal odor is offensive and products like baby powder are the answer for female freshness.
Ferranti’s research examined how feminine douching was advertised differently to black women and white women throughout the 1970s. She compared periodicals geared to white women such as Life Magazine and those geared towards Blacks, e.g. Ebony. Ferranti found not one douching ad in Life but found several in Ebony.
“By reframing the use of vaginal deodorants as an aesthetic rather than hygienic practice, the historical racist underpinnings of vaginal deodorization are made evident,” says Ferranti in the study abstract.
Ferranti adds, “The supposed malodor of African-American women was also linked to damaging sexual stereotypes that made Black women highly vulnerable to predation and violence. The essay continues by showing how manufacturers of vaginal deodorants attempted to exploit racist notions by appealing to African-American consumers’ insecurities about personal odors. This appeal is still evident in targeted marketing strategies today.”
Marketers continue to push toxic feminine hygiene products without regard for minority women’s health, Ferranti’s conclusion suggests.
In January of this year, New Mexico became the first state to file a talc lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. The lawsuit accuses the company of misleading consumers, especially children and black and Hispanic women, about the safety of its talc products.
Despite the apparent coverup of the inherent risks of crushed talc and mounting lawsuits, in 2018, Alex Gorsky, J & J’s CEO said in a company video, “We know our talc is safe. In fact, for over 100 years, Johnson and Johnson has known that the talc in our baby powder is the purest, safest pharmaceutical grade talc on earth. J&J baby’s powder has never contained asbestos.”
But less than a year later, the company recalled a batch (33,000 bottles) of talc baby powder after trace amounts of asbestos were found in some of the bottles. Approximately one year after the recall (in May 2020), the company decided to discontinue making new bottles of talc baby powder. Like arsenic or mercury, there is no established safe level of asbestos exposure.