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Why would a U.S. working group consider redefining asbestos?

Thousands of people have filed lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, claiming that contaminated talc in the company’s baby powder caused their cancers. Other companies with talc-based products face similar lawsuits.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cosmetics, companies are not legally required to submit the ingredients in their products for review by the FDA before putting the products on the market. Also, there is currently no standardized way to test for asbestos in talc. This means that the same test samples can end up with varying test results, which makes regulation even more difficult.

A working group considers how to test for asbestos

To help resolve this problem, the FDA established the Interagency Working Group on Asbestos in Consumer Products (IWGACP). This working group is tasked with finding an effective way for labs to measure and report the amount of asbestos in talc.

However, the working group claims that asbestos is not well defined and some of its characteristics make its identification complicated. Partially because of this, members have begun to consider a shift in their focus. They reportedly believe that it would be better to focus their discussions on elongate mineral particles (EMPs).

Are EMPs similar to asbestos?

EMPs include any mineral particles with a minimum aspect ratio of 3:1. This includes asbestos, as well as other substances. Some of these other substances could be toxic in a similar way asbestos is toxic. This is because some EMPs have a similar composition and crystal structure to asbestos, even though the external shape of the crystals differs when found in nature.

The working group wants the labs that test talc to report all EMPs of at least 500 nanometers long that appear in their samples, instead of only reporting on the asbestos found in those samples. However, there has been pushback from industry stakeholders.

In its opposition, Johnson & Johnson claim that the change is not supported by science, pointing to experimental studies that have shown that EMPs have a different toxicity profile than asbestos has. Representatives of Johnson & Johnson also claim that the change is not within the working group’s mandate because it was specifically tasked with finding a way to measure the amount of asbestos in talc, not EMPs in talc.

It is now up to the FDA to determine if the working group can continue its discussions on EMPs or if it should circle back to its original focus on only asbestos. This decision has the potential to impact the way the cosmetic industry is regulated and how consumers are protected in the future.

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