Ovarian cancer expert says risk from talcum powder 'very low'
Published Thursday, February 25, 2016 9:12AM EST
A decision by a jury in the U.S. to award $72 million to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer after years of using talcum powder is raising questions about the safety of the powder.
But at least one expert in ovarian cancer says the actual risks of talcum powder are very low.
The woman’s family sued Johnson & Johnson after saying she had used the company’s baby powder and Shower to Shower products for “feminine hygiene purposes” for decades before developing ovarian cancer two years ago. She died last year at the age of 62.
The trial heard that Johnson & Johnson knew of the link between "hygenic" talcum powder use and ovarian cancer and failed to warn consumers that its products could cause cancer.
Dr. Steven Narod, a senior scientist at the Women's College Research Institute, and a world leader in breast and ovarian cancer genetics, says it is true that talcum powder has been linked to ovarian cancer in studies dating back to the 1980s, but he says there’s no evidence of a big increased risk
“The studies show a slight increase in the risk of ovarian cancer among women who use talcum powder, particularly in the genital area and on sanitary napkins. That’s been in evidence for many years,” Narod told CTV’s Canada AM Thursday.
“But the risk is very low.”
Narod says among women in Canada living until age 80, about 10 in 1,000 can expect to get ovarian cancer.
“Among regular talc users that number goes up a little bit to about 12 in 1,000,” he said.
Compare that to the effect of the BRCA1 gene, which greatly increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Among carriers of that gene, about 400 in 1,000 will go on to develop ovarian cancer, he said.
“Another way of putting it is of every five women who get ovarian cancer and who have a lifetime use of talc, we could probably say one of them would be linked to the talc; the other four could have been bad luck or something else,” he said.
The Canadian Cancer Society says that research studies on the use of talcum powder on the genital area and the risk of ovarian cancer have had “mixed“ results.
“Some studies show an increased risk, while others do not,” the society says on its website.
The agency notes that in the past, certain sources of talcum powder may have been contaminated with asbestos or may have contained asbestiform fibres.
Because of regulatory changes in the 1970w, no talcum powder currently sold in Canada contains asbestos. Most are now made with cornstarch, which is not linked to ovarian cancer in any way.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, says applying talc to the genital area could be "possibly carcinogenic to humans." That’s based on lab studies of mice as well as population studies of humans.
But the American Cancer Society suggests on its website that some of these human studies may not be reliable because they were based on subjects remembering their talcum powder use many years earlier.
It, too, says that for any individual woman, if there is an increased risk from talcum powder, the overall increase is likely to very be small.