When you were younger, you probably didn’t worry that baby powder could give you cancer. Likewise, it’s doubtful that you were too worried about the chance your makeup or your child’s crayons contained cancer-causing substances. But in recent years, we’ve learned that all these talc-based products have been tainted with asbestos, the carcinogenic mineral known to cause mesothelioma.
We’ve also learned that companies like Johnson & Johnson may have known about the risks for years—or even decades. But as you learn more, you may have more questions. By now, you may know these products are dangerous when they can lead to asbestos exposure. But what exactly is the connection between talc, talcum powder and asbestos?
What are talc and asbestos?
Talc and asbestos are both naturally occurring minerals. But there are important differences between them:
- The word “talc” refers to a single mineral comprised of magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen. It’s commonly used in a wide range of household products that include powders, chewing gum and even rice. According to the FDA, there’s no conclusive evidence that talc presents any risk on its own.
- On the other hand, “asbestos” refers to a group of several related minerals. These minerals are all made up of silicon and oxygen, plus some other elements that vary from strain to strain. Asbestos minerals all share fibrous structures that are exceptionally strong and heat resistant. However, it’s this toughness that makes these fibers deadly. They can linger in the body for years and not break down.
Both these minerals are potentially useful. Talc products are everywhere, and asbestos was used for years in building materials, insulation, brake pads and many other products. The critical difference is that asbestos is also a carcinogen. The dangers associated with its use almost always outweigh the benefits.
How asbestos gets into talc products
Talc and asbestos aren’t just chemically similar minerals. They’re often found near each other. As a result, there’s always a risk that talc supplies may be contaminated with asbestos fibers.
Because of this risk, the FDA states that it’s critical for talc miners to:
- Be careful about the sites where they choose to mine
- Thoroughly test the ore for asbestos
These steps may reduce the chances that miners supply manufacturers with contaminated talc. Unfortunately, they’re unlikely to eliminate the risks.
The role that manufacturers play
Manufacturers play a significant role in the story of contaminated talc. When they send products to market, they have specific responsibilities to ensure that those products are safe for their intended uses. That starts with the decision to buy talc from responsible miners, and it continues with the tests they conduct to screen for asbestos. Unfortunately, those tests haven’t always proven useful because manufacturers have:
- Sent products to market without testing them
- Used tests that can’t detect all the types of asbestos
- Decided to relabel the tremolite asbestos they find as “cleavage fragments”
- Concealed their findings from public record
The result is that roughly 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. Johnson & Johnson may lose billions and billions of dollars as it faces more than 15,000 lawsuits. And there’s a constant stream of news about talc-based products like the Princess Girl’s All-in-One Deluxe Makeup Palette that are found to contain asbestos.
How to protect yourself
The safest way to avoid exposing yourself to asbestos through contaminated talc may be to prevent talc-based products altogether. The fact is that no amount of asbestos is known to be safe, and asbestos fibers can get stuck in your body for years, even decades.
You can also watch for the signs of mesothelioma and the other cancers tied to asbestos exposure. Catching them early may prove your best chance for the fullest possible recovery.