• Baby powder giant Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay over $2.2 billion to 22 women with ovarian cancer.
  • The ruling is a reduction from the original $4.7 billion that a lower court awarded the women in 2018.
  • Whether baby powder is actually linked to higher ovarian cancer rates is still in question.
  • But the court said the fact that Johnson & Johnson sold its products without any warning they might be contaminated with asbestos, a known cancer causer, displayed either “evil motive or reckless indifference” on the part of the company.
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A court in Missouri ordered baby powder giant Johnson & Johnson to pay over $2.2 billion to 22 women with ovarian cancer in a verdict on Tuesday.

The women had claimed the company’s talc-based products, including its baby powders, could have been contaminated with asbestos – a known human carcinogen – and that the company sold them anyway, without warning. It was a misstep the court said was either driven by “evil motive, or reckless indifference” on the part of the company.

The $2.2 billion payout that Johnson & Johnson is being ordered to pay is a reduction from the nearly $4.7 billion that a lower court awarded the same cancer patients in 2018, a cutback based on “personal jurisdiction” (i.e. that some of the women were not residents of Missouri, and should bring their cases elsewhere), and a reduction in punitive damages overall.

But the overall findings of the lower court in that two-year-old decision against Johnson & Johnson were largely upheld by a Missouri court of appeals on Tuesday, as each woman (or her family) was awarded at least $25 million. Already, 11 of the 22 women taking part in the case have died from their cancers, their law firm said in a statement released Tuesday.

Tens of thousands of similar lawsuits against the company are still ongoing around the world.

Evidence suggests the company knew there was a chance baby powder had traces of asbestos in it

talc mine

Foto: The largest talc quarry in Europe sits near the village of Luzenac, France. Source: Eric Cabanis/AFP via Getty Images

The baby powder lawsuits hinge on some seemingly straightforward, but ultimately messy questions about whether Johnson & Johnson's powder was contaminated with asbestos in any meaningful way, whether the company knew it, and whether that contamination then led to customers' cancers.

None of the answers to those questions are clear, but 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."

The reason that talc-based baby powder can be contaminated with asbestos is that the two naturally-occurring minerals are often found, and mined, in close proximity.

Is there a link between talc and cancer?

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 skeptical about their results, since most of that research was conducted by surveying women about their powder use years later.

"I don't think you can be conclusive," epidemiologist Joellen Schildkraut, a professor of public health at the University of Virginia, told Business Insider in 2018. "I don't think the data are conclusive."

A 2020 study of 250,000 woman across the US is some of the best evidence yet that baby powder may not increase ovarian cancer risk after all. The study, published in the medical journal JAMA, found little evidence that using baby powder on female genitals increases ovarian cancer risk at all.

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. But despite this uncertainty, many courts have ruled in favor of baby powder customers who are suing Johnson & Johnson, saying that the company should have at least done a better job of warning people that it's products could, or might, be contaminated with asbestos.

The company has halted sales of talc-based baby powder in the US and Canada

Johnson & Johnson baby powder

Foto: Source: Reuters

Johnson & Johnson did not immediately return a request for comment for this story. But last month, the company announced it was permanently halting sales of its talc-based baby powder in the US and Canada due to plummeting demand in the wake of these suits. (Today, the company sells talc-based baby powder alternatives, which are often made with cornstarch.)

In a statement, the company said "Johnson & Johnson remains steadfastly confident in the safety of talc-based Johnson's Baby Powder," and said its iconic powder will continue to be sold in other places around the world "where there is significantly higher consumer demand for the product."