For most women, it’s a normal part of their hygienic routine to sprinkle a little baby powder on themselves or in their underwear. The self-care practice is a normal one, specifically for women in the African-American community.
A St. Louis woman named Jacqueline Fox did so for over 40 years, dusting the lining of her panties with talcum powder each morning. It wasn’t until 2013 that she was diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer and learned that the baby powder she had been using for so long might be to blame, CNN.com reports. Fox lost her battle with the disease in October 2015.
Now, the New Jersey-based company Johnson & Johnson is embroiled in a number of lawsuits claiming their baby powder products, made with talcum powder, cause cancer. According to Rolling Out, about 20 recent medical studies have found a connection between the use of talcum powder and ovarian cancer.
The company lost its second lawsuit on May 2, 2016 for the death of another Black woman named Gloria Ristesund. In that case, the jury awarded $5 million in damages and $50 million in punitive damages, Rolling Out reports. Fox was the first plaintiff to be compensated for damages however, according to CNN.com. Following her death, a St. Louis jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to award her family $72 million.
The company plans to appeal the latest ruling.
“Unfortunately, the jury’s decision goes against 30 years of studies by medical experts around the world that continue to support the safety of cosmetic talc,” Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman Carol Goodrich said in a statement.
Thousands of other women have followed suit, suing the company for selling a product that would ultimately cause them to develop cancer. The Washington Post reports that Johnson & Johnson currently faces at least 1,200 pending talcum powder lawsuits, which includes around 1,000 in St. Louis and another 200 in New Jersey.
Goodrich disputes the claims and says that Johnson & Johnson has provided consumers with “a safe choice for cosmetic powder products” for the last 100 years.
Jim Onder, the attorney who represented Ristesund in her lawsuit, disagrees, however. Onder says that researchers first linked talcum powder and ovarian cancer in the 1970s and cites internal documents from Johnson & Johnson that show the company was familiar with those studies.
“The evidence is real clear that Johnson & Johnson has known about the dangers associated with talcum powder for over 30 years,” Onder said. “Instead of giving a warning, what they did was target the groups most at risk for developing ovarian cancer.”
On top of knowingly selling a carcinogenic product, the company is accused of marketing the powder to African-American women, encouraging them to purchase the product after use by their white counterparts dropped due to the risk of developing cancer.
In her article written for Time, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley suggests that Johnson & Johnson, along with other cosmetic companies, are guilty of profiting from the “myths of the excessive black vagina.”
“They’re willing to capitalize on our internalized misogynoir even if we die in the process,” Tinsley wrote.
Her article also states that African-American women douche and deodorize their genitals twice as much as white women, according to research conducted by Francesca Branch, Tracey J. Woodruff, Susanna D. Mitro and Ami R. Zota. Many of those products also contain human carcinogen and are linked to other health risks not visibly listed on labels.
An Atlanta lawyer is now making efforts to stop the unfortunate trend of Black women dying from cancer caused by the use of baby powder. Mawuli Mel Davis and his firm, Davis-Bozeman, are spearheading the initiative to inform African-American women in Georgia about the risks of using talcum powder and the possible legal action they could take against companies like Johnson & Johnson, Rolling Out reports. Davis calls the company’s plan to target Black women a “Corporate Tuskegee Experiment.”
Davis also revealed that his firm has recently taken up the case of a 34-year-old Georgia woman who died from ovarian cancer in 2015. While his team investigates the case, Davis says he wants to continue making women aware of the dangers of talcum powder.
“We say, ‘Don’t Wait! Stop Now!,’ ” he said. “We are calling on sororities, women’s health organizations and all activists to take part in this health movement. We must get the word out: remove this product from your home!”