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The problem with baby powder

December 19, 2018

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The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

IT is said to be one of the most recognisable scents in the world: the smell of Johnson & Johnson baby powder, used first by mothers on their babies, then even later on, continuing into childhood and adulthood. It has, over the years, represented just the clean and caring sort of feeling that the advertisements for the product have proclaimed.

All of this may be about to change. Last summer, a jury in St. Louis, Missouri, handed out a record $4.69 billion verdict to 22 plaintiffs who alleged that the company had failed to warn consumers that the talcum powder contains dangerous levels of the cancer-causing chemical asbestos. The plaintiffs in the suit had developed ovarian cancer. The magnitude of the verdict was supposed to send a message to the company that this sort of negligence is unacceptable. Six of the plaintiffs had already died of ovarian cancer by the time the case came to trial.

Last week, there was more news. The New York Times published a front-page story on how executives at the company had apparently known since 1971 that their product likely contained asbestos. Documents that the newspaper obtained under a US law, that allows the procurement of certain records, showed that executives at the company discussed and debated the issue internally, tossing around solutions that included removing talc from their talcum powder. The article detailed how studies that showed the presence of asbestos in the powder were discredited or suppressed.

Company executives talked about how the baby powder was the Holy Grail amongst all their products and changing its ingredients or adding warnings would cause a huge hit to company profits. The result is well known: there was no warning to consumers; talc continued.

Consumer confidence and trust determine sales, particularly where products for children are concerned.

In recent years, however, the company has also begun to manufacture an alternative version of the powder that does not contain talc and contains only cornstarch. When the jury verdict came in last summer, and the possible connection was revealed, the company’s stock plummeted 11 per cent. Since the New York Times story came out last week, the company’s stock fell further. One defence tactic was to take out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, explaining that the science of the connection between talc and ovarian cancer is far from certain and enumerating all the health and safety measures that the company had taken to ensure this. A website titled ‘Our talc is safe’ has also been launched in the hope of allaying consumer concerns.

Such steps are taken because a company knows that consumer confidence and trust determine sales, particularly where products for children are concerned. Consumers lose trust in a product, either by information of a possible connection between the product and cancer, or revealing company negligence in relation to safety precautions attached to products. The websites and FAQs as well as full-page newspaper advertisements all draw attention to the fact that the link between ovarian cancer and talc are dubious.

Some of the company’s defences are somewhat substantiated. On their website, the American Cancer Society says that the results connecting talc to ovarian cancer have been mixed, in that there has not been a direct and incontrovertible connection between the two. The New York Times advertisement taken out by the company, glibly titled Science, not Sensationalism, said, “If we had any reasons to believe our talc was unsafe, it would be off our shelves.”

It is difficult to tell whether the exercise in limiting the damage from lawsuits will be successful. In most cases, even the mere rumour that a product, particularly a product that is used primarily for children, is associated with cancer is enough to get most people to stop purchasing it. Since the lawsuit in St. Louis, many additional lawsuits have been filed all over the US. They include not just people who claimed they had developed cancer but also those who said they developed mesothelioma from airborne asbestos particles, the jagged particles of which apparently lodged in their lung tissue, leading to the disease.

In addition to individual lawsuits, there are also class-action lawsuits that seek all plaintiffs who have ovarian cancer and used the baby powder for long periods of time.

Here in Pakistan, the risks are just the same as anywhere else in the world. If one looks at the science, then it is true that there are studies that show no link between talc from Johnson’s baby powder and ovarian cancer and various lung ailments. There are also studies that show that there may be a link. The Pakistani consumer, like the consumer everywhere else, must decide whether or not the risks are such that they should stop using products containing talc reportedly containing harmful ingredients.

In addition to consumers, who must assess the risks themselves, agencies entrusted with ensuring public health must also assess the results of the lawsuits in the US and decide whether warnings should be issued in Pakistan. Finally, lawyers must also see if there are affected people on whose behalf they can sue the company on the basis of the evidence unearthed by the earlier lawsuits and the New York Times investigation.

Modern life in America, or Pakistan, or anywhere in the world for that matter, involves constant contact with a barrage of chemicals; the latter are present in what we eat, in the air we breathe, in the products we use. There is no getting away from chemicals, even if we know that some of them (say, the cigarette smoke that is present in nearly every office and home in Pakistan) are carcinogens that can cause one or another type of cancer. In the case of baby powder, however, many mothers may choose to err on the side of safety. If they have to use baby powder, maybe they can opt for the version made out of pure cornstarch rather than take a chance with talc.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2018