Asbestos in talc could increase the risk of mesothelioma cancer because various talc products are naturally contaminated with asbestos fibers, which put consumers and industrial workers at risk for exposure.
Talc is the softest mineral on earth. It is used in industrial products and consumer products. The most widely used consumer talc product is talcum powder.
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.
Industrial talc is used in the production of ceramics, plastics, paper, roofing, flooring and rubber.
But in modern times, controversies over talc’s safety have marred its reputation.
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 talc products can cause cancer. In this case, the controversy arises over which industrial talc products and brands of talcum powder were contaminated with asbestos. The controversy extends to which companies are now liable when people develop asbestos-related cancers such as mesothelioma.
Current research indicates that pure talc does not cause mesothelioma. But talc that is contaminated with asbestos and asbestiform minerals has led to the development of mesothelioma.
The term “asbestos” refers to six different minerals. The term “asbestiform” refers to minerals with a crystal-like structure that resembles asbestos and shares properties with asbestos. Examples of asbestiform minerals include erionite, richterite, winchite and taconite.
Geologically, talc and asbestos can naturally form alongside each other. Not every talc deposit is contaminated with asbestos. The ones that are contaminated tend to contain tremolite or anthophyllite, both forms of amphibole asbestos, rather than chrysotile, which is the serpentine form of asbestos.
Like talc, the mineral vermiculite commonly forms alongside asbestos and asbestiform minerals. The infamous vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, was contaminated with tremolite asbestos and the asbestiform minerals richterite and winchite.
Whether a particular talc product contains asbestos has everything to do with its geologic source. If the talc deposit contains asbestos or asbestiform minerals, the products made with that talc are likely contaminated with asbestos.
Different grades of talc may contain varying degrees of asbestos contamination. Medical-grade talc is around 99 percent talc and is used in a procedure called talc pleurodesis to treat pleural effusion caused by mesothelioma. Talc used in medicine is a special grade of talc, reportedly asbestos-free, that is sterilized before use.
Cosmetic-grade talc is approximately 98 percent pure talc.
Industrial-grade talc contains a variety of other minerals in varying quantities depending upon the geologic source. For example, the industrial talc product known as Nytal 100 contains 30 percent talc, 40 percent tremolite, 20 percent serpentine and 10 percent anthophyllite.
Industrial talc is used in a variety of industries to manufacture many modern products.
The agricultural industry uses it as an anti-caking agent in animal feed. The ceramics industry uses it to make ceramic tiles, artware and finishing glazes. Industrial talc is added to coatings, such as paint and glazes, to improve texture, enhance matting and paint adhesion.
The paper industry uses talc to improve printability and reduce surface friction. The plastics and rubber industries use talc as filler and to improve molding ability. Industrial talc is even used in wastewater treatment plants to purify water.
The workers who use industrial talc to manufacture these products are at risk of handling talc contaminated with asbestos. The miners and millers who work with raw talc ore are also at risk of asbestos exposure.
Several scientific studies have shown that mining and milling asbestos-contaminated talc causes asbestos-related diseases and talcosis, which is a pulmonary disorder similar to asbestosis and silicosis.
A 2002 exposure study published in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health found excess cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related lung diseases among talc miners in upstate New York.
The mines involved in the study are located in the counties of St. Lawrence and Jefferson, the hub of which was a town called Gouverneur, where R.T. Vanderbilt Company Inc. operated a talc mine. Researchers say the talc mines in this area contain asbestos and asbestiform minerals.
Vanderbilt is known for a particular industrial talc product called Nytal, which is used by many industries, including the painting and plumbing industries, to make a variety of products. It was widely used in the art industry to make pottery, ceramic wall tiles and artware.
There is much controversy around whether Nytal contains asbestos. Numerous scientists claim it does contain asbestos and other asbestiform minerals. Vanderbilt and its scientists claim Nytal contains fibers that may look similar to asbestos but are not a harmful form of asbestos.
Vanderbilt stopped selling Nytal in 2008 because of the controversy. They also shut down their talc mining operations in New York in 2008. Several courts have held Vanderbilt liable for cases of mesothelioma that developed among people who worked with Nytal.
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Industrial talc lawsuits brought by mesothelioma patients have gone to trial in the U.S. for more than two decades. They’ve primarily involved R.T. Vanderbilt Company Inc., also known as Vanderbilt Minerals, and Imerys Talc America — both suppliers of industrial talc.
The first mesothelioma talc lawsuit was filed by Peter Hirsch in 2006 in New Jersey. Hirsch was exposed to Vanderbilt’s Nytal during the seven years he operated a pottery studio in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Hirsch used bags of Nytal talc to make pottery glazes. In 2002, Hirsch was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Before he died in 2004 at the age of 53, Hirsch filed a lawsuit against Vanderbilt claiming Nytal caused his mesothelioma. His widow continued the suit and in 2006 a New Jersey state jury awarded her $3.35 million.
In 2010, Dansby Sanders of Alabama filed a mesothelioma talc lawsuit against several defendants claiming he developed the cancer as a result of working with asbestos-contaminated industrial talc. For 37 years, Sanders worked at Mobile Paint Company, where he used Nytal supplied by Vanderbilt Minerals. The Alabama court ruled in favor of Vanderbilt. The Sanders estate appealed and the Alabama Supreme Court reversed the decision and remanded the case for retrial.
In 2012, Darcel Galliher, the widow of Michael Galliher, filed a lawsuit against Vanderbilt claiming that her late husband died of mesothelioma caused by exposure to Vanderbilt’s industrial talc. Michael worked for 36 years at a plumbing company where Nytal was used to make glazes and to dust molds for ceramics manufactured in the cast shop. A Delaware jury found Vanderbilt at fault and awarded Darcel $2.86 million. Vanderbilt appealed and the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the verdict and ordered a retrial.
In 2012, the family of Richard Chisholm filed a mesothelioma talc lawsuit against Vanderbilt claiming his cancer stemmed from exposure to their industrial talc while working at a ceramics company. In the 1970s, Chisholm used Vanderbilt’s industrial talc to make ceramic products. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2010 and died in 2012. A New York Supreme Court jury found Vanderbilt at fault and awarded $10.55 million to the Chisholm family.
In 2017, a California jury awarded $22.17 million to Richard Booker for developing mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos-containing industrial talc. Booker used industrial talc to make paint while working at Dexter Midland Chemical Co. and Walter N. Boysen Paint Co. The talc Booker used was supplied by Vanderbilt Minerals and Imerys Talc America. Testimony presented to the jury from Imerys executives revealed that the company had re-blended its talc in an attempt to hide the asbestos content.
One of the first industrial talc cases to be heard by a Florida state court jury involved a man who claimed he developed mesothelioma as a result of working with asbestos-contaminated industrial talc products. In the 1970s, plaintiff Robert Lord worked with ceramic tiles made from asbestos-contaminated industrial talc. Lord filed suit in 2017 against several defendants, including Vanderbilt Minerals.
By the time the case went to trial in February 2018, Vanderbilt Minerals was the only remaining defendant. Vanderbilt says that Lord can’t definitively link his cancer to their products, claiming that there is not enough scientific evidence linking talc to mesothelioma. They also claim that the type of asbestos found in Lord’s lung tissue samples is not found in their products. As of March 2018, the trial is underway and the jury is expected to announce their decision soon.
Talc used in cosmetics also has a history of asbestos contamination. The contamination has primarily involved talcum powder products. Several cases of contamination have involved makeup products including children’s makeup sold by national retailers Justice and Claire’s.
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The controversy around asbestos in makeup only recently became a public concern. The controversy around asbestos in talcum powder has been known since 1970s.
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’s 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.
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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.
Many people who have developed cancer because of asbestos-contaminated talcum powder have sought compensation by filing a lawsuit. Talcum powder mesothelioma cases have resulted in multimillion-dollar verdicts.
In April 2018, Johnson & Johnson and talc supplier Imerys SA were ordered to pay a total of $117 million in damages to New Jersey resident Stephen Lanzo III and his wife. A Brunswick, New Jersey, court ruled Johnson & Johnson was responsible for $25.9 million in compensatory damages and $55 million in punitive damages. France-based Imerys was found liable for the remaining $36.1 million.
Lanzo’s case was Johnson & Johnson’s first loss in an asbestos-related talcum powder lawsuit. Lanzo claimed he developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos through Johnson & Johnson’s Shower to Shower and Baby Powder products.
Six months earlier, a California jury ruled in favor of Johnson & Johnson in a lawsuit filed by Tina Herford. She claimed she developed mesothelioma as a result of using Johnson’s Baby Powder. Johnson & Johnson claimed Herford had secondary asbestos exposure through her father’s work clothes.
In 2017, a New York jury ordered talc supplier Whittaker, Clark & Daniels to pay $16.5 million to Florence Nemeth, who claimed she developed peritoneal mesothelioma after using Desert Flower Dusting Powder.
Also in 2017, Colgate-Palmolive opted to settle a mesothelioma talc lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania resident Carol Schoeniger. Her suit claimed that exposure to Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder caused her mesothelioma. She used Cashmere Bouquet for more than 20 years. The financial terms of the settlement were not made public.
In 2016, a jury awarded Philip Depoian $18 million in a talcum powder lawsuit against 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.
Judith Winkel won $13 million in a 2015 talcum powder lawsuit against Colgate-Palmolive and four other companies. She had used Cashmere Bouquet from 1961 to 1976 and was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2014.
Lawsuits over asbestos-contaminated talcum powder should not be confused with lawsuits over pure talc. 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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