Talc is the main ingredient in many brands of baby powder and similar personal hygiene products. Various talc products, especially those manufactured before the mid-1970s, were cross-contaminated with asbestos fibers, putting consumers at risk for dangerous exposure.
Talc is the softest mineral on earth, and finely crushed talcum powder is valued for its ability to absorb moisture and provide lubrication at the same time. People have used talcum powder products to dry, protect and perfume their skin for more than a century.
But in modern times, talc’s reputation has been marred by two controversies over its safety.
There is ongoing debate over whether pure talc is associated with health risks. Researchers agree breathing the dust from talc mines and processing facilities is unhealthy, but so far studies on the link between exposure to talc and cancer have been inconclusive.
On the other hand, there is no doubt asbestos exposure through contaminated talcum powder can cause cancer. In this case, the controversy arises over which brands of talcum powder were contaminated with asbestos and which companies are now liable when people develop asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma.
Companies began selling talcum powder in the late 1800s to alleviate and prevent skin irritations such as chafing and diaper rash. Pulverized talc became known by many names, including “medicated powder” and “foot powder,” but its most famous branding came with the introduction of Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder in 1893.
As generations of Americans grew up with talcum powder in their nurseries, talc companies took advantage of the powder’s low cost and good reputation by marketing a wide range of talcum powder products for adults.
Numerous companies sold perfumed talcum powder as face-dusting powder for women and after-shave powder for men. Johnson & Johnson maintained its prime position in the industry with its Shower to Shower line of body powder products.
During the first half of the 20th century, asbestos also had a positive reputation with the American public — because of the industry cover-up of the mineral’s terrible health effects. The asbestos industry spent decades denying the mineral’s toxicity, giving talcum powder manufacturers no reason to think asbestos-contaminated talc was a problem.
Unfortunately, talc and asbestos often occur in the same geological formations. Many companies sourced their talc from asbestos-contaminated mines, including sites in North Carolina, Alabama, Vermont and northern Italy.
In the 1970s, mounting medical evidence began to turn the tide of opinion against asbestos. Then in 1976, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital examined 19 samples of American talcum powder products and found asbestos in 10 of them, with the asbestos content ranging from 2 percent to as much as 20 percent, depending on the brand.
Because of the long latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases, though, many people who routinely used contaminated talcum powder in the 1960s may only just now develop symptoms.
The 1976 study did not find asbestos in the talcum powder samples acquired from Johnson & Johnson. However, according to recently unsealed company documents, officials at Johnson & Johnson did suppress reports of asbestos contamination at one supplier’s mine in the early 1970s.
Today, body powder products may be made of pure talc, cornstarch or various other alternatives.
In response to lingering concerns over asbestos contamination, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a study of American talcum powder products in 2009-2010. The FDA found no asbestos contamination, though the report cautions the sample size was limited.
Cosmetic products and ingredients do not have to undergo FDA review or approval before they go to market, with the exception of color additives. However, talcum powder and other cosmetic products must be properly labeled and must be safe for use by consumers under labeled or customary conditions of use.
The FDA monitors potential safety problems with cosmetic products and can take action if sound scientific evidence shows a product is harmful under its intended use.
While no federal regulations exist, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (now known as the Personal Care Products Council) in 1976 asked its member to use asbestos-fee talc in their products.
Talcum powder brands associated with past asbestos contamination include:
Many people who have developed cancer because of asbestos-contaminated talcum powder have sought compensation by filing a lawsuit.
In 2015, Judith Winkel won $13 million in a lawsuit against Colgate-Palmolive and four other companies. She had used Cashmere Bouquet brand talcum powder from 1961 to 1976 and was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2014.
More recently in 2016, a jury awarded Philip Depoian $18 million in a lawsuit against talc supplier Whittaker, Clark & Daniels. He had been exposed to the company’s contaminated talc in products at his father’s barbershop and was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015.
Lawsuits over asbestos-contaminated talcum powder should not be confused with lawsuits over talc itself. Many lawsuits have been filed on the basis that pure talcum powder may cause ovarian cancer, but that matter is far from settled.
Daniel King joined Asbestos.com in 2017. He comes from a military family and attended high school on a military base. He feels a close connection to veterans, military families and the many hardships they face. As an investigative writer with interests in mesothelioma research and environmental issues, he seeks to educate others about the dangers of asbestos exposure to protect them from the deadly carcinogen linked to asbestos-related conditions. Daniel also holds several certificates in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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