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FDA Slow to Recognize Asbestos Danger in Powder

Although the FDA has known for decades that some talcum powder might be contaminated with asbestos, for most of that time it overlooked the risk.
FDA Slow to Recognize Asbestos Danger in Powder
Spilled baby scented powder on striped background with short depth of field

Does the FDA rely too heavily on industry expertise? The example of asbestos in talcum powder and talc-containing cosmetics suggests that it has done so for years.

Asbestos Risk from Baby Powder:

For nearly half a century, consumers and some scientists have raised serious questions about the safety of talc in baby powder. Recent research in the Journal of Occupational Health and Safety (online Oct. 10, 2019) linked talcum powder use to the serious cancer known as mesothelioma. However, this is only the latest in a long list of scientific publications on the topic. Although many cases of mesothelioma afflict people who handled asbestos in their jobs, talcum powder exposure is non-occupational. The authors of this study suggest that clinicians should ask people diagnosed with mesothelioma about talcum powder use. 

Despite concerns that date back more than four decades (Journal of Occupational Medicine, Feb. 1973), the FDA failed to fully investigate asbestos contamination and the risks it might pose. Instead, it relied largely on the manufacturers’ statements about the safety of such products. As a consequence, some researchers have concluded that the agency was misled about the potential connection between baby powder and ovarian cancer (Epidemiology, Nov. 2019).

They conclude:

“Talc is one of the many examples of corporate influence on research and regulation.”

FDA Doesn’t Regulate Cosmetics:

FDA spokesmen have pointed out that it has limited authority to regulate cosmetics like baby powder, although it now recognizes the danger of asbestos in such products. On the other hand, when Johnson & Johnson recalled 33,000 bottles of baby powder in October, some observers concluded that the agency did not push hard for that regulatory ability. Exposure to asbestos has been linked to an increased risk for several different types of cancer.

Learn More:

Reuters recently completed an investigation of this situation. 

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Moline J et al, "Mesothelioma associated with the use of cosmetic talc." Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, online Oct. 10, 2019. DOI: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000001723
  • Blejer HP & Arlon R, "Talc: a possible occupational and environmental carcinogen." Journal of Occupational Medicine, Feb. 1973.
  • Tran TH et al, "Talc, asbestos, and epidemiology: Corporate influence and scientific incognizance." Epidemiology, Nov. 2019. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000001091
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