Tuesday, 6 September 2016

(Talcum) Powder Keg

Not cocaine – By Mattman723, Wikimedia Commons
The news today tells me that Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is being sued in the US by ovarian cancer sufferers who claim their use of talcum power caused their medical condition.

This is not new. Talcum powder manufacturer Johnson & Johnson has been successfully sued twice in the US after juries found two womens' use of talc led to their terminal ovarian cancer.

Firstly, these are sad cases that often involve very sick people trying to find some rhyme or reason as to why they got ill and, in some cases, family trying to blame someone for why their consequent death. These are tragic circumstances in which these people find themselves.

But even in light of these successful lawsuits, there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, this is not like smoking and lung cancer. Smoking was pretty was known to be dangerous by the 1950s, with links suggested as early as the 1930s (the link is to a history of this research and is fascinating reading).
It was the tobacco companies continued to obfuscate, cover up and deny and their is no disputing their culpability. But there is no such evidence of a similar causal link between consumer talc and ovarian cancer, nor of like behaviour on the part of Johnson & Johnson.
Unlike with cigarettes and lung cancer, where the risks were obvious and well understood, there is very little evidence to suggest talc causes an increased risk of ovarian cancer, and even less to suggest it 'causes' it. Some studies find a slightly increased risk of cancer with talc use, others don't. And, as all the 'red wine increases/decreases risk of cancer' stories demonstrate, humans are crap at understanding what 'risk' really means. More info on the state of evidence here: www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/othercarcinogens/athome/talcum-powder-and-cancer

Secondly, science isn't decided by the courts, it is decided by the scientific process. Courts and scientists work to very different levels of proof with very different methods. Just because a French court rules a woman should get money because of her claimed electromagnetic hypersensitivity to mobile and wifi waves, doesn't mean such an affliction exists. Actual evidence — tried, tested and retested all over the world — suggests it does not and a judge's gavel cannot render decades of peer reviewed research null and void.
Natural therapy fans, antivaxxers and pseudoscience acolytes often point to these successful personal injury claims as evidence of harm. But they are not. They are evidence of success in a courtroom setting, not a laboratory.

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