In ongoing litigation in the US against American pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, a jury in St Louis last week ordered the manufacturer to pay $4.69 billion to 22 women who have suffered ovarian cancer allegedly as a result of using talcum powder contaminated with asbestos.
During the six-week trial, the women said they developed ovarian cancer having used the company's signature baby powder and other talc products for decades.
The claimants' lawyer said that the company had known that their powder and shower products contained asbestos since at least the 1970s but had failed to inform the FDA, responsible for public health in the US. Asbestos fibres inhaled by women using the powder were found in the ovarian tissue of many of the claimants.
A further 9,000 claims are currently being pursued by people suffering cancer and mesothelioma as an alleged result of using the talc. Of the 22 women represented in the current case, six have died from ovarian cancer.
The claim that talc used at home is contaminated by asbestos type fibres is hotly disputed by Johnson and Johnson. The company is appealing the judgment, which includes $550m in compensation plus punitive damages of $4.14 billion. J&J said it was "deeply disappointed" by the judgement.
From our experience, industrial talc can be contaminated by "asbestiform" fibres which, medical evidence suggests, can cause mesothelioma.
We have yet to see significant cases arising from talc exposure here. But we have certainly seen workers exposed to high and prolonged doses of industrial talc contract a rare, more chronic disease of the lungs – talcosis - similar in nature to silicosis and asbestosis.
If any UK cases follow, it will be important to establish the origin of the talc used in processes in the UK. Some French talcs do not contain asbestiform fibres but those originating from Italy or Russia may well do so.