A diagnosis of cancer remains a terrifying one, and more and more compounds are found to be cancerous. Governments in the United States and abroad have established oversight agencies to review potential carcinogens and set standards to prevent or minimize exposure to carcinogens. Yet, there may still be instances of people being exposed to carcinogens in what are normally thought of as safe or benign products.
One product that many believe to be harmless is talcum powder. The product is absorbent and has often been used on babies to keep their sensitive skin dry and to prevent rashes. Commercial talcum powder is often referred to as baby powder.
Talcum powder is a fine powder made from talc, which is a soft clay mineral composed of various elements, including magnesium, silicon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Talcum powder is used widely in cosmetic products, such as face powders, eye shadows, and baby powder. It is made by purifying and milling talc into a fine powder. Some talc contains more than trace amounts of asbestos.
The presence of asbestos in talc can be problematic. Asbestos is a known carcinogen and has been implicated in high rates of cancer among asbestos miners, workers who make products out of asbestos, as well as people using asbestos products, such as pipefitters. Mesothelioma is a cancer caused by asbestos. Inhalation of asbestos causes this cancer that forms in the exterior lining of the lung. Mesothelioma has a higher rate of fatality compared to many other cancers.
There is consensus within the scientific community that talcum powder uncontaminated with asbestos is generally safe and unlikely to cause cancer. However, the answer is not as clear when considering exposure to asbestos containing talcum powder products.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a part of the World Health Organization (WHO) and identifies causes of cancer. It has reviewed available evidence and drawn some conclusions as follows:
When dosage is difficult to evaluate, duration of exposure is uncertain, and exposure to more than one carcinogen is likely, it is very difficult to know whether asbestos-containing talcum powder is carcinogenic. Another difficulty in identifying causes of cancer is that the response is delayed, often by years or decades. Also, another reason for why it is so difficult to establish whether talcum powder is carcinogenic is that only some talcum powders contain asbestos.
There is some limited data that suggests exposure to asbestos-containing talcum powder slightly increases the risk of developing ovarian cancer. One recent review of pooled data from four cohort studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association sought to establish whether genital use of talcum powder by women is associated with a higher risk of ovarian cancer. The review failed to establish an association of talcum powder use and ovarian cancer. The review explained that since the background incidence of ovarian cancer is so rare, there may not have been enough data to detect a statistically significant increase in ovarian cancers.
Animal studies have also been performed to detect carcinogenicity of talcum powder. So far, findings in these animal studies have also been inconclusive. Additionally, the IARC has so far avoided making definitive statements regarding the carcinogenicity of talcum powder. It only has limited evidence from human studies of a possible link to ovarian cancer to rely on. To date, the data regarding carcinogenicity of talcum powder is inconclusive.
In all exposures to carcinogens and other hazardous compounds, the concept of dose-response applies. The greater the dose, the greater the response. Accordingly, a major consideration of the likelihood of developing cancer after exposure to a carcinogen is the dosage. A high exposure to a carcinogen, especially if it occurs in the form of consistent repeated exposure over time, will increase the chance of developing cancer.
There is no specified standard for how much asbestos can be present in consumer products, such as talcum powder. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review or approve of cosmetic products and ingredients other than color additives. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act requires that cosmetics be properly labeled and safe for use under customary conditions.
The FDA monitors for potential safety problems with cosmetic products and takes action when needed to protect public health. It must have sound scientific data to show harm from using a product as intended before it takes action. In 2019, the FDA issued voluntary recall alerts and an advisory against using certain talc-containing cosmetic products, including baby powder, based on findings that they contained asbestos.
Today, there is much more information available to workers and consumers on the potential for illness from various chemicals and compounds they work with or use. Manufacturers of chemical products are required to label products with warnings of safe use and known negative effects of exposure.
If the product is to be used by employees in the workplace, then manufacturers must prepare Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) with information on safety information, including proper use and potential health effects. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide MSDSs to their employees, as well as provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and training on how to use chemicals safety. Employees should request the MSDSs for products they handle and be sure they are using chemicals correctly.
Manufacturers of drugs are required to perform tests on safety and efficacy and submit the findings to the FDA before they legally sell and market the drug in the U.S. Adequate safety warnings must be affixed to the packaging that explains safe use and what is known about side effects. Consumers should review the packaging and follow directions on safe use.
Consumers of cosmetics may raise concerns regarding potential illness from use of these products with the FDA. The FDA can investigate claims of illness from food additives, drugs, or cosmetics. If evidence is strong enough, the FDA may ask manufacturers to voluntarily recall the product from the market or take other regulatory action to protect consumers.
In all instances, a mesothelioma patient should make sure that illness is treated by a trained medical professional and provide all information on exposure to products, such as chemicals, drugs, or cosmetics, that may be responsible for causing or exacerbating the condition. A patient should also follow medical advice to discontinue use of or exposure to suspect products.
If you have developed cancer after exposure to a known carcinogen, you may be able to sue the manufacturer, your employer, or another responsible party. Asbestos exposure is known to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma and may be associated with other cancers. The experienced Philadelphia mesothelioma lawyers at Brookman, Rosenberg, Brown & Sandler can listen to your concerns, evaluate the available evidence, and suggest the best option for you. Call us at 215-569-4000 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, including Delaware County, Chester County, and Philadelphia County.