Asbestos in Talc & Mesothelioma Cancer Risks

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.

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This page features: 11 cited research articles

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.

Asbestos Cashmere Bouquet Talcum Powder
Asbestos Cashmere Bouquet Talcum Powder

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. In recent years, asbestos talc lawsuits have resulted in several multimillion dollar verdicts and settlements.

Talc and 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.

At A Glance:
  • Places Used: Personal hygiene products and industrial products
  • Toxicity: High
  • Asbestos Use Banned: No
  • Friable: Yes

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.

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Industrial Talc

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.

These industries incorporate industrial talc into many different products including:

  • Clay
  • Pottery
  • Ceramic tiles
  • Crayons
  • Chalk
  • Electrical switchboards
  • Electric cables
  • Paper
  • Ink
  • Sinks
  • Toilets
  • Rubber gloves
  • Plastic automotive parts
  • Rubber sealants and gaskets
  • Jointing compounds, putties and adhesives
  • Household appliances such as stoves, dishwashers, washing machines and dryers

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.

Anthophyllite Asbestos Mineral Specimen
A naturally occurring combination of anthophyllite asbestos and talc.

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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Talc in Cosmetics

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.

In 2017, Justice and Claire’s recalled the children’s makeup products that were found contaminated. In March 2018, Claire’s filed for bankruptcy, citing $2 billion in debt as the reason for filing.

In addition to talcum powder, cosmetic-grade talc is used in many different cosmetic products.

  • Foundation
  • Creams and moisturizers
  • Eye shadow
  • Blush
  • Mascara
  • Lipstick
  • Deodorant
  • Loose and compressed makeup powders

The controversy around asbestos in makeup only recently became a public concern. The controversy around asbestos in talcum powder has been known since 1970s.

Asbestos in Makeup

Find out how asbestos finds its way into cosmetic products.

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Asbestos in Talcum Powder

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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Talcum Powder Products Associated with Asbestos

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 members to use asbestos-fee talc in their products.

Talcum powder brands associated with past asbestos contamination include:

  • Bauer & Black Baby Talc
  • Cashmere Bouquet Body Talc
  • Coty Airspun Face Powder
  • Desert Flower Dusting Powder
  • English Leather After Shave Talc
  • Faberge Brut Talc
  • Friendship Garden Talcum Powder
  • Kings Men After Shave Talc
  • Old Spice After Shave Talc
  • Pinaud Clubman Talc Powder
  • Rosemary Talc
  • ZBT Baby Powder

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Last Modified October 1, 2018

Writer

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.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at Asbestos.com
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21 Cited Article Sources

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2017, November 15). Talc.
    Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductsIngredients/Ingredients/ucm293184.htm
  2. American Cancer Society. (2017, November 13). Talcum Powder and Cancer.
    Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/talcum-powder-and-cancer.html
  3. Hsu, T. (2017, September 28). Risk on All Sides as 4,800 Women Sue Over Johnson’s Baby Powder and Cancer.
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  4. Feely, J., Fisk, M. and Hopkins, J. (2017, September 22). Johnson & Johnson alerted to risk of asbestos in talc in '70s, files show.
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  6. Gordon, R., Fitzgerald, S. and Millette, J. (2014, October). Asbestos in commercial cosmetic talcum powder as a cause of mesothelioma in women.
    Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4164883/
  7. The New York Times Archives. (1976, March 10). Asbestos Found in Ten Powders.
    Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/1976/03/10/archives/asbestos-found-in-ten-powders.html
  8. Industrial Mineral Association. (n.d.). What is Talc?
    Retrieved from: http://www.ima-na.org/page/what_is_talc
  9. American Ceramic Society. (2008, February). Talc and Asbestos.
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  10. PR Newswire. (2017, June 5). Global Talc Market 2017-2021 – Increase in Demand from Plastics Industry – Research and Markets.
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  12. Ceramic Industry. (2008, January 11). R.T. Vanderbilt to Cease Talc Production.
    Retrieved from: https://www.ceramicindustry.com/articles/88859-r-t-vanderbilt-to-cease-talc-production-posted-1-11-08
  13. IARC. (2010). Talc Not Containing Asbestiform Fibres.
    Retrieved from: https://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol93/mono93-8.pdf
  14. NIST. (2000, October 1).Amphibole Asbestos From Libby, Montana: Aspects of Nomenclature.
    Retrieved from: https://www.nist.gov/publications/amphibole-asbestos-libby-montana-aspects-nomenclature
  15. Mayo Clinic. (2017, March 1). Talc (Intrapleural Route).
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  16. American Bar Association. (2017, March 2). Talc Litigation and Insurance Implications.
    Retrieved from: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/litigation/materials/2017_insurance_coverage/written_materials/1_talc_litigation_and_insurance_implications.authcheckdam.pdf
  17. Hull, M.J., Abraham, J.L., & Case, B.W. (2002). Mesothelioma among Workers in Asbestiform Fiber-Bearing Talc Mines in New York State.
    Retrieved from: https://academic.oup.com/annweh/article/46/suppl_1/132/317491
  18. Fitzgerald, E.F., Stark, A.D., Vianna, N., & Hwang, S.A. (1990). Exposure to Asbestiform Minerals and Radiographic Chest Abnormalities in a Talc Mining Region of Upstate New York.
    Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00039896.1991.9937442
  19. Honda, Y. et al. (2002). Mortality Among Workers at a Talc Mining and Milling Facility.
    Retrieved from: https://academic.oup.com/annweh/article/46/7/575/196783
  20. National Research Council (US) Committee on Nonoccupational Health Risks of Asbestiform Fibers. (1984). Asbestiform Fibers: Nonoccupational Health Risks.
    Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK216753/
  21. IRSST. (2012, October). Synthesis of Knowledge on Tremolite in Talc. Retrieved from: http://www.irsst.qc.ca/media/documents/PubIRSST/R-755.pdf
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