Deane Berg: I was about 16 years old. My mother had recommended it to me because of chafing problems in the heat in the summertime.
Deane Berg was among the millions of women who use talcum powder on their genital area for freshness.
Sharyl: Was it baby powder?
Berg: Sometimes it was baby powder. Other times it was the Shower to Shower, because that came out and it was specifically for women. "A sprinkle a day keeps the odor away."
TV Ad: A sprinkle a day keeps the odor away.
Berg: And so I just thought it was perfectly safe to use and they were marketing it quite a bit.
Sharyl: And how many years did this go on?
Berg: Until I got cancer, when I was 49.
Even though she’s a physician’s assistant, Berg knew nothing about the possible risks of that sprinkle a day.
TV Ad: Have you had your sprinkle today?
When she got cancer, she did her own research and was shocked to find longstanding studies suggesting a link between talc and ovarian cancer.
Sharyl: Why do you think it is that someone inside the medical industry wasn't even aware of this?
Berg: There really was nothing in the public at all about this, and even my gynecologist had never heard of that before.
Talc is the world’s softest mineral and a multi-billion-dollar a year industry. It’s used in plastics, antiperspirants, cosmetics, gum, medicine, soap, toothpaste and baby powder.
TV Ad: Johnsons Baby Powder, a feeling you never outgrow.
The debate over the safety of talc goes back decades. There’s already a warning that it could cause breathing problems if inhaled. Dr. Daniel Cramer says there may be other risks. A professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Harvard Medical School, he was first to find a statistical link between talc and ovarian cancer in a 1982 study.
Dr. Daniel Cramer: It has taken 25 years of additional literature I believe to make the case, but I believe we were on target in that study and that the subsequent studies have supported there is an elevated risk. We reported that the risk might be as high as a two-fold increase in risk if they had more than, say, 20 years of talc use.
Dr. Cramer testified as a paid expert in the trial of Deane Berg, who became the first ovarian cancer victim to sue America’s number one baby powder maker: Johnson and Johnson.
Talc can get into womens’ reproductive tract, testified Dr. Cramer, and trigger the cancer process, especially in long term users like Berg, who says she sprinkled on powder every day for more than 30 years.
Dr. Cramer: Talc is a potent inflammatory agent, and if it's able to reach the pelvic cavity, I think it is capable of inducing an inflammatory response.
Berg: They took my pathology report and my slides with my tissue and did further research on it, and it came back definitely showing talcum in my ovaries.
Berg: This was a shot that was taken on Mother's Day of 2007, when I had absolutely no hair.
Berg says Johnson and Johnson offered her a half million dollars to avoid trial.
Berg: I didn't like the attitude of the people that were there from Johnson & Johnson. It was almost like a brush-off. And the more I thought about it, I said, "Well, I didn't go into this just to make a million dollars." I said, "I wanna get the warning out there. Aren't you gonna do anything about that?” And so they went up to $1.3 million. And I finally said, "I'll see you in court in September," and walked out of the room.
Berg won her trial in 2013, but without explanation, the jury didn’t require Johnson and Johnson to pay her a penny.
Berg: They were proven guilty of negligence for failing to warn me about it, but there was no damages awarded to me, which was quite a shock in the sense of six months of no work, the pain of chemotherapy, hysterectomy, and permanent hearing loss, nerve damage.
Even without a cash award, Berg’s landmark victory set off panic in the talc industry and a torrent of new lawsuits.
TV Ad: Attention: Women who have used Talc based personal care products
TV Ad: Talcum powder has been linked to ovarian cancer and death...
In the past 13 months, ovarian cancer victims have won three major victories worth $197 million. Victims’ attorneys argued Johnson and Johnson knew about “30 years of studies showing an increased risk of ovarian cancer,” but failed to warn the public.
Johnson and Johnson wouldn’t agree to an interview, but says its products are safe and supported by decades of scientific evidence, that studies linking talc to cancer are flawed, and quote, “if there was the slightest risk to our consumers we would be the first to withdraw the product”.
The world’s leading talc producer, Imerys, wouldn’t agree to an interview, but referred us to American Tort Reform Association, a trade group supported in part by the talc industry. Darren McKinney is a spokesman.
Sharyl: What is your group or the talc industry's point of view in general in terms of the alleged association between talcum powder and ovarian cancer?
Darren McKinney: The American Tort Reform Association does not believe that credible medical and scientific authorities have, in fact they have not determined a causal link between the use, the cosmetic, external use of talcum powder with ovarian cancer.
Jurors may have been persuaded otherwise by company documents revealed as evidence in the lawsuits. In 1997, a Johnson and Johnson consultant wrote a scathing letter, telling the company that “9 studiesdid show a statistically significant association between hygenic talc use and ovarian cancer” and “anybody who denies this, risks that the talc industry will be perceivedlikethe cigarette industry: denying the obvious in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”
Another court exhibit was this 2004 letter from the biggest talc producer to the FDA. It proposed voluntarily phasing-out talc for genital use. It even suggested an FDA warning, saying there was a “possible association” with “ovarian cancer.”
McKinney points out the FDA never required a warning.
McKinney: The FDA as recently within the last couple of years has made it very clear that the science, as the FDA sees it, simply does not merit such a warning at this time.
Sharyl: The FDA also did say, though, the growing body of evidence to support a possible association between genital talc exposure and serous ovarian cancer is difficult to dismiss?
McKinney: God bless 'em. And I don't know anyone who is arguing that what we know today about talcum powder use or chocolate consumption or red wine consumption is what we will believe 30 years from now. But based on what we know today, certainly the FDA believes and many of the rest of us believe that there's no reason to hold the makers or the sellers of talcum powder liable to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, much of which the plaintiffs' bar is going to greedily call its own.
McKinney says money-grubbing plaintiffs’ lawyers are descending upon a sympathetic court in St. Louis, Missouri, where the talc industry lost those three big cases, and where more than one-thousand more lawsuits are pending.
McKinney: They chose a giant, deep-pocket defendant who they assume would cower because it's ovarian cancer and they presumed they could extort tens of millions of dollars’ worth of a universal settlement, and that hasn't worked out. But when science is on your side, as the talc defendants insists it is here, we would argue that you ought to stick to your guns and you ought to fight if you believe you're right, and that's what the talc defendants are doing.
There was victory for the talc industry last September, when a judge threw out two cases in New Jersey, saying there was inadequate scientific support.
But Berg says there’s one piece of evidence from her trial that she can’t shake. While there’s no cancer warning on baby powder, believe it or not there is one on industrial talc before it’s sold to consumers.
Added in 2006, it reads, “perineal [genital] use of talc-based body powder is possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
Sharyl: The workers who handle the talc are warned about the cancer risk?
Sharyl: But then the women who put it on their bodies are not.
Berg: Correct. Yes. That was rather shocking.
Today Berg is recovering from her surgeries, chemotherapy and nerve damage. As the first ovarian cancer victim to win a talc lawsuit, she wants other women to know what she didn’t.
Berg: If people wanna continue to use it, that's their right, but at least have a warning label stating to women, there is this risk. So it's up to you to make the final decision.