Johnson & Johnson must pay £51m compensation in talcum powder cancer case

In a recent cancer compensation claim has led to the in the US state of Missouri has ordered Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to pay $72m (£51m) to the family of a woman who claimed her death from ovarian cancer was linked to use of the company's Baby Powder talc.

With around 1,200 similar cases pending in the US and the possibility of thousands more being filed, is the use of talcum powder safe?

What is talcum powder made of?

Cosmetic talcum powder is a mineral based product, containing magnesium and silicon. Before the 1970s it was often contaminated with asbestos fibres which are known to cause cancer. But since then, all products containing talcum powder are legally obliged to be asbestos-free.

The American Cancer Society raised concerns about the potential dangers of talcum powder in 1999 and many US talcum manufacturers switched to using corn-starch. However in Britain most people still use talcum powder.

Why has this compensation award been made?

The woman from Birmingham, Alabama died of ovarian cancer last year, aged 62. She claimed to have used two of the company's talc-based products - Baby Powder and Shower to Shower - as feminine hygiene products for more than 35 years, before being diagnosed three years ago with ovarian cancer. Her family argued that J&J knew of the talcum risks and failed to warn consumers.

The jury deliberated for five hours before finding J&J liable for fraud, negligence and conspiracy and ordered the company to pay the woman's family $10 million in compensation and $62 million as a punitive award.

The jury's foreman said that it was clear that J&J - the world's largest health products manufacturer - was hiding something and all it had to do was "put a warning label on".

Could it happen in the UK?

The company has long marketed the talc-based powders as feminine hygiene products, and Baby Powder is widely available in the UK.

However legal experts warned that if the company was prosecuted in Britain, a judge, not a jury, would need to be convinced that there was enough scientific evidence to support any claim.

Since most cancer experts believe the link is unproven, claimants would face the difficulty of proving that talcum powder directly caused their cancer - especially when there may be other factors involved.

Roderick Bagshaw, Associate Professor of Law at Oxford University said: "Whether we will see claims against baby powder producers in England is likely to depend to a great extent on the nature of the scientific evidence that supports the proposition that such powder causes cancer".

Should women be worried?

Ovarian cancer is a rare disease with 7,100 women diagnosed in the UK each year, meaning that all women have a 1 in 54 (or 2%) risk of developing the disease.

For years there have been concerns that using talcum powder, particularly on the genitals, may increase the risk.

In 2003, results of 16 studies involving 12,000 women showed that using talc increased the risk of ovarian cancer by around a third, and in 2013 a review of US studies involving 18,000 women had similar results for genital, but not general, talcum powder use.

However, ovarian cancer charity Ovacome warns that studies of this type "can suffer from bias" (as they rely on people remembering how much talc they used years ago) and there were "uncertainties" around the results. It cites another study in the USA in 2000, which involved nearly 80,000 women and found no link between using talc and the risk of ovarian cancer.

Causes of the disease are still unknown but are likely to be "a combination of many different inherited and environmental factors, rather than one cause such as talc".

"Increasing a small risk by a third still gives a small risk. So even if talc does increase the risk slightly, very few women who use talc will ever get ovarian cancer."

Cancer Research UK says evidence for a link between talc use and ovarian cancer is still uncertain, and "even if using talc increases the risk by a third, to put it into context, smoking and drinking increases the risk of oesophageal cancer by 30 times".

What does Johnson & Johnson say?

J&J denied the claim, saying the safety of talc was supported by decades of scientific evidence. It is said to be considering an appeal.

A company spokeswoman said: "We have no higher responsibility than the health and safety of consumers, and we are disappointed with the outcome of the trial, although we sympathise with the plaintiff's family".

So what now?

Despite a lack of conclusive evidence, this news will still be alarming to many women who use talc-based products, particularly those with ovarian cancer in their family history who are understandably keen to minimise all risk factors.

Katherine Taylor, Chief Executive of Ovarian Cancer Action, says:

"If you are currently using talc, do not panic. Given evidence is inconsistent we do advocate a ?better safe than sorry' attitude and advise that women using talc on their genitals stop doing so. But it is important to remember that the suggested increased risk from using talcum powder is very small.