Talc link to ovarian cancer 'unproven'

The link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder is still unproven, said local experts.

Concerns about products containing talc were raised this week after healthcare conglomerate Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay US$72 million (S$101 million) in compensation to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer after using the company's products containing talc for years.

It is now facing around 1,200 lawsuits over claims that it failed to warn customers about studies that linked talc to ovarian cancer.

Local doctors say talc, a soft mineral that can be found in nature, is used in everyday products, including cosmetics, deodorants and even chewing gum.

Dr Elaine Lim, senior consultant at the National Cancer Centre Singapore's medical oncology department, said: "The evidence regarding a link between talc and ovarian cancer remains inconclusive."

Obstetrician and gynaecologist Elisa Koh explained that ovarian cancer is believed to be caused when the ovaries become inflamed, which can happen when they are irritated by a foreign substance.

"The issue is the entry of the powder through the genital tract. Using it on the chest or face is unlikely to be a problem," said Dr Koh, who works at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.

The World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies the use of talc-based body powder in the genital region as "possibly carcinogenic", in the middle of five categories ranging from "carcinogenic" to "probably not carcinogenic".

This means that there is limited evidence that such powder causes cancer in humans.

"Talc has been used in cosmetics since the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago," said Dr Alain Khaiat, president of the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association of Singapore. "It is used... as a filler in medical tablets as well as to prevent them from sticking to the compacting dye. In cosmetics, talc is found in pressed powders, blushes, eye shadows, and so on."

He added that ovarian cancer rates are high in countries such as Sweden, which uses very little talc; while India uses a lot of talc, but has low rates of the disease.

Johnson & Johnson told The Straits Times that the talc it uses is "carefully selected and meets the highest quality, purity and compliance standards".

Some consumers, such as marketing executive Andrea Ong, said they believe any major problems would have surfaced before now.

"I've been using Johnson & Johnson powder since I was young," said Ms Ong, 26. "It has become an essential toiletry for my family."

Others, such as designer Pradeep Kumar, voiced concerns .

"I have two kids and they both have used Johnson & Johnson products for many years," said the 44-year-old.

"Now I'm really worried and I don't know what will happen (to my children) in the future."

Supermarkets told The Straits Times they are keeping tabs.

There are no plans now to remove the products from shelves, said a Sheng Siong spokesman, but it will still monitor developments and review its decision when needed.

A spokesman for FairPrice said: "As an added precaution, we are in the process of consulting local regulatory authorities as well over this matter."

This article was first published on Feb 27, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.