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Why it matters how the experts define asbestos

The link between asbestos and mesothelioma is undeniable. For many years, scientists have known that asbestos exposure can cause the rare cancer. However, this link gets muddied once talc producers get involved.

As Chemical Watch recently reported, this is because asbestos isn’t a single mineral. Instead, it’s a group of minerals that share some key features. Because these minerals are known to cause cancers like mesothelioma, companies need to keep them out of their products, which is why Johnson & Johnson, along with some other companies, have fought the government’s efforts to expand its definition of asbestos.

If it looks and acts like asbestos, is it asbestos?

Tasked to explore the connection between talc and asbestos, an FDA working group wants to shift its focus away from asbestos, specifically. What it wants is to focus on elongate mineral particles (EMPs). These include asbestos fibers, as well as other mineral fibers that have the same chemical composition and crystalline structure. But they aren’t currently considered asbestos because they don’t naturally take the same shapes.

The FDA working group notes this natural distinction becomes unimportant when the minerals appear in talc. Mined and fragmented by the talc manufacturers, the EMP fibers look and act much like asbestos fibers. The main difference, at this point, is that there are fewer studies to prove they do or do not cause cancer.

In short, the argument becomes:

  • The FDA working group says that because the fibers share so much in common with asbestos—and might be carcinogenic—they should be treated like asbestos when found in talc
  • Johnson & Johnson and other talc producers claim that because there’s not enough science to prove the fibers cause cancer, they shouldn’t be treated like asbestos when found in talc

Naturally, the talc producers resist the FDA working group’s efforts to include EMPs in its studies. The FDA has already found asbestos in roughly 20% of all the talc products it has tested. Expanding the definition of asbestos fibers would only put more significant pressure on the talc producers.

The argument for counting EMPs

As Chemical Watch notes, the FDA working group claims the current definition of asbestos is loose enough that adding the EMPs would make sense. Currently, asbestos fibers:

  • Remain solid except at the most extreme temperatures
  • Share a crystalline structure
  • Can have different chemical compositions

The EMPs may not look the same as asbestos when they form larger, untreated crystals. But they share all the properties listed above when they’re found in talc. Additionally, French studies found that EMPs could cause mesothelioma in rats. Because of this, the French claimed they couldn’t rule out the possibility that EMPs were toxic. They also noted that there were no studies showing that they were not toxic.

To some extent, the argument about whether the EMP fibers are toxic is a bit like arguing about whether a bladed instrument is a knife. In this analogy, the FDA working group is saying that the bladed instrument that looks like a knife and is sharp like a knife should be treated like a knife. The talc producers are arguing that the bladed instrument isn’t a knife, and because it’s not a knife, the studies that check for knives in their talc powders shouldn’t check for these razors.

For many, this debate isnt merely theoretical

Of course, the reason it matters whether the FDA and its working group count EMPs is because asbestos causes cancer. And if the EMPs act like asbestos and may cause cancer, people deserve to know. The talc producers know this, too, but want to protect their business. They’d instead offer test results that don’t reveal all the harmful fibers within their talc.

Those test results matter because, in the end, they aren’t just about crystalline fibers. They’re about the people living with cancer who have suffered. They’re about the friends and families who watch their loved ones suffer. And they’re about the people the companies continue to put at risk.

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