Commentary: Toxic Talc
Recent developments in the US suggest that talcs analyzed with transmission electron microscopy can commonly be found to contain asbestos fibers. If so, the use of these products as baby powders and cosmetic powders should be stopped immediately.
Upon the public disclosure that the laboratories led by Dr. Irving Selikoff in New York had found asbestos in cosmetic talc products, there were media reports in the New York Times and other media in 1976 naming the products in which asbestos was found. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed methods for testing talcs for asbestos, which the talc interests found excessively sensitive. Through the Cosmetic Toiletries and Fragrances Association (CTFA), the talc interests got FDA to accept a less sensitive voluntary testing method.
In Italy, (ISS) government health laboratories analyzed 15 products sold in Italy and 14 more obtained from the European Pharmacopeia. The report published in 1984 found that there was asbestos in nearly half the products tested. Three quarters of the asbestos fibers were too thin to be seen with optical microscopes, the authors noted. They had used transmission electron microscopy. In 1985, the Italian Pharmacopeia referenced their report and stated that electron microscopy must be used to analyze talc for asbestos.
Years later, in 2008, the Italian ISS scientists were stunned to learn that the European Pharmacopeia specified that optical microscopy be used in making final determination of whether talc contained asbestos. We now know that their 1984 Italian report was read at Johnson & Johnson (J&J), where ideas on how to compromise it were sought because of its uncomfortable business aspects. J&Js man wrote to an official at Talcs de Luzenac in France, worried that the Italian paper concluded that regulations were anticipated. This could pose a threat to the talc business in Europe, he wrote.
We dont yet fully know how business interests were able over the past 45 years to avoid serious scrutiny of talcs for asbestos contamination, but there is every reason to believe that products now being marketed endanger the public.
In December 2018, Reuters ran a report detailing the historic evidence of asbestos contamination in Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder, from corporate documents. Thousands of personal injury lawsuits had been filed against J&J by people with malignant mesothelioma and ovarian cancer who had used Baby Powder and similar products made by other companies.2 The documents revealed in litigation showed that J&J had received repeated analyses of its product from outside labs, starting in the early 1970s, saying that that there was asbestos in it.3 J&J stock dropped by 10% the next day after the Reuters article appeared, $40 billion in market value.
On December 3, 2019, Reuters published a report starting with this lead: Since at least the 1970s, the regulatory agency (FDA) downplayed health concerns about talc in powders and cosmetics, deferring again and again to manufacturers. Only now, as pressure mounts from lawsuits and a Reuters investigation, is the agency stepping up testing.4
Last October (2019), the FDA announced that it had sent Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder to a laboratory for testing by electron microscopy, and the lab found asbestos in the talc. This prompted J&J to recall thousands of bottles of Baby Powder while still denying that the product was contaminated.5
On February 4, 2020, the FDA held a Public Meeting on Testing Methods for Asbestos in Talc and Cosmetic Products Containing Talc.6
This record shows that there has been a long-time failure of government regulators in the US and Europe to protect the public from asbestos in talc consumer products. In the US in the 1970s and Italy in the 1980s, electron microscopic analysis detected asbestos in a substantial fraction of the talc products on the market. The recent public interest resulting from the public release of the internal corporate documents has led the FDA to finally take serious steps to protect the health of US citizens. The recent FDA finding of asbestos in J&J Baby Powder suggests that analysis of products being sold to the public in all countries urgently needs to be done using the electron microscopy method of analysis used by the ISS scientists in the 1980s.
March 4, 2020
2 A newly published paper on this subject is informative:
Moline J, Bevilacqua K, Alexandri M, Gordon RE. Mesothelioma Associated With the Use of Cosmetic Talc. J Occup Environ Med, 2020 Jan.
3 Girion, L. Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder. December 14, 2018.
4 Girion, L. Terhune, C. FDA bowed to industry for decades as alarms were sounded over talc. December 3, 2019.
5 Hsui, T. Rabin, RC. Johnson & Johnson Recalls Baby Powder Over Asbestos Worry. October 18, 2019. Updated November 19, 2019.
6 Public Meeting on Testing Methods for Asbestos in Talc and Cosmetic Products Containing Talc. February 4, 2020.