A group of cancer scientists at the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified talc as “probably cancerous” to humans. 

Talc was previously labeled as a “possible carcinogen” and after considering studies and evidence, the group of 29 scientists from 13 countries changed talc’s classification to the second strongest level of certainty that it can cause cancer. 

WHO said that it could not rule without a doubt that talc on its own could cause cancer because asbestos contamination could not be ruled out. 

“There were numerous studies that consistently showed an increase in the incidence of ovarian cancer in humans self-reporting the use of body powder in the perineal region. Although the evaluation focused on talc not containing asbestos, contamination of talc with asbestos could not be excluded in most of the studies of exposed humans,” WHO said in its press release.

Scientists reviewed the available literature and based their decision on strong mechanistic evidence that talc exhibits characteristics of a carcinogen, sufficient evidence that it can cause cancer in animals, and limited evidence for ovarian cancer in humans. 

This latest talc classification could affect tens of thousands of talc lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson that claim the mineral can cause ovarian cancer. 

J&J has long claimed that its products are safe and that science connecting talc to cancer is “junk science.” The company even sued four scientists who published studies that link the mineral to cancer. 

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Judge Finds Talc Cancer Research Not Fraudulent

One scientist sued by Johnson & Johnson for publishing a paper that linked asbestos-contaminated talc and cancer defeated the claim after a New Jersey judge found her research was not libelous or fraudulent. 

LTL’s lawsuit argued that Moline committed fraud and libel by publishing her findings. The health care conglomerate filed the lawsuit through its LTL Management division, which J&J controversially created to shield itself from lawsuits that claim its talc products caused ovarian cancer and mesothelioma. 

Judge Georgette Castner dismissed the lawsuit, finding that Moline was not engaged in fraud or libel when she published her 2020 study which concluded that asbestos-contaminated talc products may cause mesothelioma. Ultimately, the scientist was protected by her free speech rights, and LTL’s lawsuit failed to show that Moline’s research was “verifiably false.”

J&J’s global vice president of litigation, Erik Haas, told Reuters the company would appeal. The lawsuit against the other three researchers is still pending.

J&J’s Third Try at Bankruptcy Settlement

Suing scientists is one of many tactics J&J has been using to end talc lawsuits. As of July 1, more than 57,000 lawsuits were pending in multidistrict litigation in New Jersey.

LTL Management has failed twice to use bankruptcy to settle cancer claims linked to its talc products. U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is currently reviewing the company’s third attempt. As part of that deal, LTL offered a $6.48 billion settlement to resolve all current and future ovarian cancer claims. 

In order to go through, at least 75% of plaintiffs have to accept the bankruptcy settlement proposal. The settlement offer has divided some plaintiffs’ firms who say the settlement isn’t enough. 

In June, J&J agreed to pay $700 million to settle charges by Washington D.C. and 42 states that the company misled consumers about the safety of their products. Florida, Texas and North Carolina led the settlement claims. 

According to J&J, the settlement isn’t an admission of wrongdoing, and it will continue to focus on resolving talc claims. 

“The company continues to pursue several paths to achieve a comprehensive and final resolution of the talc litigation,” Haas told Reuters. “We will continue to address the claims of those who do not want to participate in our contemplated consensual bankruptcy resolution through litigation or settlement.”