It may seem that asbestos awareness is only more widely raised when there’s a press headline of a huge sum being claimed for mesothelioma compensation. In a recent case heard in the US, a court awarded the equivalent of £51.7 million to the family of a 62 year old woman who died from ovarian cancer.

In this particular case, the damages awarded were not in any way related to mesothelioma or asbestos exposure and there’s no suggestion that asbestos was involved but the circumstances are uncannily similar.

Whether or not the large payout may be considered newsworthy in itself, attention was nevertheless drawn to the claim by the victim in the two years following diagnosis that her cancer was caused by “decades” of using talcum baby powder. Clinicians, asbestos victim support groups and asbestosis lawyers alike, have long been aware of the potentially hazardous contents, including asbestos fibres, that manufacturers have been known to sometimes use in producing talcum powder products.

Material strengthener and stabiliser

In the present case, there is no specific mention of any asbestos fibres found in the talcum powder. The contents in question are an organic stabiliser compound and formaldehyde, both also considered to be cancer-causing agents. However, until the late 1970s and into the 1980s, asbestos fibres were not only used as insulation and fireproofing but also widely added as a low cost material strengthener and stabiliser in hundreds of industrial, household and cosmetic products, including talcum powder.

The naturally-occurring mineral was used to eliminate moisture in rubber product industries and also added as a ‘quality improver’ in a variety of other industrial products, such as coatings, plastics, paper-making, agriculture and pharmaceuticals.

However, it is the pharma industry use of asbestos and other other ingredients in talcum baby powder that medical research says are potentially cancer-causing agents, which may alert hundreds of thousands of past consumers to a potential health risk.

Link between asbestos and ovarian cancer

A further serious health risk from handling talcum powder can result from small, asbestos-like fibres not removed in the powder making process, which can have a similar cancer-causing effect. Medical research has previously found a link between the use of talcum powder and an increased risk of urinary tract disorders and ovarian cancer. In addition, new studies based upon the records of men and women who were regularly exposed to asbestos during their childhood also show an increased risk of developing a range of cancer types, including leukaemia, prostate, brain and colorectal cancers, and ovarian cancer in women.

While it has only been comparatively recently that doctors and clinicians have discovered that asbestos can also be responsible for a number of other cancers, such as ovarian cancer and cancer of the larynx, stomach and liver, to date, research is unable to exactly confirm how asbestos fibres reach the ovaries. However the claim by the US mother – who described her many years of using talcum powder as “second nature” – was the cause of her terminal ovarian cancer, is likely to be worryingly too close for comfort for many.

Manufacturers agree to remove contents

But what of the talcum powder producers? In 1997, an internal memo from the company’s own medical consultant suggested that “anybody who denies [the] risks” between “hygienic” talc use and ovarian cancer would be publicly perceived in the same light as those who denied a link between smoking cigarettes and cancer”.

As recently as 2009, concerned groups have been increasingly vocal and active in trying to persuade the manufacturers to completely eliminating the health risk contents from baby and adult personal care products. Following a sustained three year campaign, which included a boycott threat, the manufacturers agreed in 2012 they would work towards removing the contents by 2015.

Damages awarded as punishment against company

The agreed deadline has of course now passed but following their defence in the recent case, the company released a written statement, which said the court verdict “goes against decades of sound science proving the safety of talc as a cosmetic ingredient in multiple products.”

However, the court disagreed. Not only was it said that the family were entitled to the equivalent of £7.1 million in actual damages they should also receive £44.3 million in damages as a punishment to the company. It is expected that the present verdict will go to the appeal court.