Asbestos in Talcum Powder: What are the reasons for concern?
When many people think of talcum powder, they are immediately put in mind of the traditional image of the powder as something sprinkled in nappies and on babies’ bottoms, as a means of absorbing wetness and lowering the risk of skin rashes and irritations.
In recent years, however, concerns have been raised about the possible asbestos contamination of some talcum powder.
So, how serious is the risk, and what specifics do we know about the issue so far?
What is talcum powder, and is it dangerous?
Talcum powder consists mainly of talc, which is a naturally forming, soft mineral largely made up of the elements magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. Talc has a soap-like texture and can be green, white, or grey. Manufacturers grind down talc into a fine powder, which is known as talcum powder.
People have often turned to talcum powder down the generations due to its effectiveness in absorbing moisture and helping to reduce friction, which has made it invaluable for those who have sought to keep skin dry and minimise the likelihood of rashes.
Talcum powder has long seen widespread use in consumer products such as baby powder, cosmetics, and deodorant. However, there have been fears in recent years that with talc and asbestos – the latter another naturally occurring substance – potentially forming so closely together that mining practices cannot keep them separated, there could be greater scope for talc deposits to be contaminated with asbestos than many people realise.
Fresh attention was drawn to these concerns in November 2022, with it being reported that Johnson & Johnson was set to be hit with a class-action lawsuit from the new UK-based firm of well-known Houston litigator W. Mark Lanier. This was in relation to claims that talc products of the American pharmaceutical giant might have contained asbestos leading to UK customers developing cancer.
Lanier has form in this area, his Houston-based Lanier Law Firm having previously won a payout of $4.69 billion from Johnson & Johnson in 2018, in relation to claims that the multinational corporation’s talc products were to blame for 22 women developing ovarian cancer.
Johnson & Johnson, for its part, has hit back, claiming that it continues to “stand firmly behind the safety of talc-based Johnson’s Baby Powder”.
While there isn’t yet a consensus on talcum powder necessarily being dangerous – studies over the years not having conclusively demonstrated that contact with the product heightens the risk of cancer – cases like the above have underlined that there could be reason for concern.
If asbestos is banned, why has asbestos been found in talcum powder?
The use of all types of asbestos in the UK was, of course, finally banned in 1999. Asbestos was once used extensively in industries such as construction and shipbuilding, and the material remains present in many buildings up and down the UK. However, it is also not thought to pose a risk to health if it is in good condition and undisturbed.
The issue of the possible asbestos contamination of talcum powder has not received quite so much attention and scrutiny, at least until recently.
The fact that baby powder has for generations been regarded as an innocuous product, made it all the more shocking when a Reuters report in late 2018 alleged that Johnson & Johnson had spent decades covering up the presence of asbestos in the talc it used for its baby powder.
However, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that questions have been asked about the possible asbestos contamination of talc since the 1970s. Indeed, this led the FDA to develop standards setting out that talc should be tested in order to ensure it is free from asbestos.
Currently, however, the FDA doesn’t require that talc cosmetics be tested for asbestos prior to them being allowed on store shelves; instead, products are monitored for safety once they go on sale.
Johnson & Johnson has long sold its talc-based baby powder across the world, including in the UK. However, with nearly 40,000 lawsuits having been made by customers claiming that asbestos in its products caused cancer, the company announced in August 2022 that it would cease selling it from 2023, switching to selling exclusively cornstarch-based baby powder.
Who is at risk of exposure to asbestos-contaminated talcum powder?
There are various groups that it is thought could be at particular risk of coming into contact with asbestos in talcum powder. These include, but are not necessarily limited to:
- Adults who use talcum powder-based cosmetics and personal care products such as makeup, shaving products, and body powders
- Children who come into contact with asbestos-contaminated toys, which have included the likes of modelling clay, makeup, crayons, and amateur crime lab kits
- Hairdressers and barbers who use cosmetic-grade talcum powder in order to prevent irritation and chafing after haircuts
- Ceramics workers and paint makers, given that talc is used in both ceramics and paint – the former as a filler, and the latter to provide enhanced weather and corrosion resistance
- Talc miners and millers, who are likely to be at highest risk of coming into contact with talc in its rawest form – along with the asbestos that might be nearby
Anyone who has made extensive use of talc over many years might therefore be well-advised to be mindful of possible asbestos exposure – and to reach out to a medical professional to discuss this if they begin to develop respiratory symptoms.
What are the health risks associated with asbestos in talcum powder?
The inhalation or ingestion of asbestos is known to heighten the risk of developing any of a range of asbestos-related conditions.
One of those conditions is thought to be mesothelioma, a type of cancer that develops in the lining covering some of the body’s organs, and that is almost always caused by exposure to asbestos. Past research has also indicated a possible association between asbestos-contaminated talcum powder and cases of lung cancer and ovarian cancer.
A key factor to be aware of in any discussion of the potential risk posed by asbestos exposure, is the often very long latency period. Indeed, a given person might not begin to develop symptoms of an asbestos-related condition until many decades after their contact with the lethal substance.
What talcum products contain asbestos?
As aforementioned, Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powders have attracted particular controversy over suggestions of possible asbestos contamination of the product.
Indeed, such was the scale of what the company described as “misinformation” surrounding the product’s safety, that Johnson & Johnson confirmed in the spring of 2020 that it would cease to sell its talc-based baby powder in the United States and Canada. The company said initially that it would continue offering the product worldwide due to high demand, but this stance has since changed, and it seems that 2023 will see the end of all sales of the firm’s talc-based baby powders.
It is important to acknowledge, however, that concerns about asbestos in talcum powder haven’t centred exclusively on Johnson & Johnson. Several other talcum powder brands, such as Chanel No. 5 After Bath Powder, Old Spice After Shave Talc, and Yardley Invisible Talc and Black Label, have also been linked to potential contamination with asbestos.
Nor is talcum powder the only consumer talc product, even if it is the most commonly used. Brands ranging from Claire’s and Colgate-Palmolive to Vanderbilt Minerals and Whittaker, Clark & Daniels have been associated with the production of items that may contain asbestos.
Finally, it should be borne in mind that there are also many industrial products that use talc in some way, such as paint, glazes, paper, ink, clay, pottery, and rubber gloves.
So, is talcum powder safe to use?
It must be emphasised that no one who has investigated the possible presence of asbestos in talc products is suggesting that every single talc deposit contains asbestos. However, the fact that talc and asbestos occur in such close proximity to each other in the earth raises the prospect that miners could come into contact with asbestos, even when they are specifically mining for talc.
Raw talc, when mined, can sometimes contain asbestos fibres – and indeed, is frequently contaminated with amphibole asbestos.
Historically, talc has not been thought to be dangerous, even if it is true that talc dust can irritate the respiratory system, leading to symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath, and chest pain. Scientists have also long been sceptical of the notion that mere exposure to talc could heighten the risk of developing cancer, reasoning that there isn’t a clear biological mechanism for this; however, that situation could change markedly in the case of talc contaminated with asbestos.
Various epidemiological studies have been undertaken over the last three decades, looking into suggestions of a connection between talcum powder use and cancer risk, and such a connection has not been shown definitively.
Still, with the subject of asbestos in talcum powder having become an intensifying subject of discussion lately, the risks cannot be entirely dismissed, even if medical consensus has yet to emerge on the issue. In the meantime, those who may come into contact with talc in their home or work lives will need to exercise their best judgement in light of the known facts.
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