Talc, the fine, powdery mineral used in thousands of consumer products by everyone from newborns to the elderly, can be a killer when it’s contaminated with asbestos _ which some public health experts say happens far more often than miners and manufacturers acknowledge.
In an explosive new study, scientists from three different laboratories worked for more than a year to track asbestos-contaminated talc from the mines to a popular body-powder product and then into the lung tissue of a woman who died of asbestos-caused mesothelioma after years of using the product.
For years, medical researchers have encountered many reports of women having mesothelioma without any identifiable exposure to asbestos in their histories. Yet the only known cause of mesothelioma, an almost invariably fatal cancer, is asbestos.
Of course we knew that there was asbestos contaminating the talc in many cosmetic powders, but who would have ever thought that that’s the way these women were being exposed?” said pathologist Ronald Gordon, one of three authors of the extensive study on mesothelioma and talc products published online in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health last month.
Scientists, physicians, geologists and lawyers report the number of people being sickened or killed by the lethal needle-like fibers is escalating, and many attribute at least part of that increase to asbestos’ presence in thousands of consumer products.
For decades, death has come from asbestos in brake linings, or wrappings on pipes and boilers, or in loose vermiculite insulation still present in millions of homes.
But laboratory analysis and court documents show asbestos is often found in products as common as cosmetics, body and baby powder and even the talc used by barbers.
Mesothelioma causes rapidly growing tumors in the pleura, which is the thin outer lining of the lungs and chest wall; the peritoneum, which covers the abdominal cavity; and sometimes in the pericardium, the sac surrounding the heart.
Medical researchers have long attributed some ovarian cancers to talcum-based products.
While many of the old talc products on which hundreds of lawsuits were centered have been removed from the market, shiploads of others arrive from overseas manufacturers daily. Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor any other federal agency examines these shipments to assure their safety.
The cosmetic industry and operators of the nine commercial talc mines operating in the United States and scores of suppliers overseas fervently insist that there is no asbestos in their talc, nor the products they make from it. Court testimony also documents that some suppliers tell buyers that asbestos in talc has never been shown to cause disease.
But The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a unit of the World Health Organization, classifies talc that contains asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans.”
Talc/asbestos injury lawsuits, as with almost all litigation dealing with toxic substances, traditionally boil down to who presents the most believable expert witness. Lawyers estimate that hundreds of talc suits have been filed, a number almost impossible to verify because virtually all are settled before trial and the payments _ often in the millions _ are sealed.
The arguments presented by lawyers defending the manufacturer or seller of the allegedly harmful product are consistent: There was no asbestos in their product; the victim couldn’t have been exposed during typical use of their product; and if asbestos fibers were actually found, it wasn’t from the product.
Gordon, a researcher professor in New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and his two co-authors conducted multiple experiments to evaluate the accuracy of such claims.
During the research, James Millette, a forensic engineer and executive director of MVA Scientific Consultants in Duluth, Ga., built a sealed chamber about the size of a typical bathroom. He installed elaborate air collection filters placed in the breathing zone of a would-be talcum powder user. He then had a test subject wearing a protective respirator use a shaker container and later, a powder puff, to apply powder to his chest, under his arms and around the shoulder and upper arm area.
In another experiment, Sean Fitzgerald, a geologist with SAI Laboratory in Greensboro, N.C., modified a large, sealed glove box also equipped with air collection filters, and tested for the presence of asbestos from the talc he rubbed on his hands.
The tests were repeated several times and consistently they documented that the contaminated talcum powder released high levels of inhalable asbestos into the air.
The experiments also confirmed that using contaminated talcum powder in closed spaces _ like a small bathroom _ increases the likelihood of inhaling the asbestos fibers.
About 800 miles north, in the pathology department of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Gordon analyzed tissue from the body of a woman who died of mesothelioma.
“We have traced the asbestos in the talc to the mines from which it originated, into the milled grades, into the product, and finally into the lung and lymph nodes of the users of those products, including one woman who developed mesothelioma,” the study reported.
During their testing, they found that the talcum powder used by the victim _ Cashmere Bouquet _ “contained identifiable asbestos fibers with the potential to be released into the air and inhaled during normal personal talcum powder application.”
Invoices and shipping papers from the former manufacturer of the product which allegedly led to the woman’s fatal disease _ Colgate-Palmolive _ showed it purchased talc from “the Willow Creek mine in Southwest Montana, the Regal mine near Murphy, North Carolina, and imported talc from the Val Chisone region of the Italian Piedmont,” the researchers reported.
According to a statement from the company, Colgate-Palmolive no longer sells any talc products in North America. Its Cashmere Bouquet talc business was sold in 1995 to The Stephan Co., which is headquartered in Tampa.
The Stephan Co. did not respond to three requests for information regarding the source and purity of the talc currently used in Cashmere Bouquet. On its web site, it describes the brand as producing “fragrant body powders from imported talc, evoking a classic elegance with uncompromising freshness.”
Most lawyers interviewed were willing to discuss some details of the tainted-cosmetic cases they’ve already filed, but offered only vague information on new cases in their pipelines, beyond the claim that there are many and the numbers are increasing.
The authors of the study, which was paid for in part by lawyers for asbestos plaintiffs, provided a more telling picture of the problem today.
Fitzgerald said that most of the women with mesothelioma that his group investigated are in their 50s, but several are younger.
“Clearly this is not a situation where asbestos-contaminated talc is just harming a few people from any one place,” said pathologist Gordon, who explained that he’s getting a growing number of “lung tissue samples from patients with mesotheliomas where their only source of asbestos was from using cosmetic talcum powders containing the asbestos.”
“The volume of new samples is increasing from around the world,” Gordon said.
The contaminated cosmetics go beyond any single brand, say many of the scientists who specialize in toxic minerals.
“Every time I test a variety of the off-the-shelf cosmetics I always find asbestos in some of the talc,” said Fitzgerald. “This remains a hazard to consumers that should not be ignored.”
Fitzgerald said research leaves no doubt that asbestos-contaminated talc products are extremely hazardous “and, in effect, you’re literally throwing it in your face.”
Their research also showed that even though talc may contain only a small amount of asbestos, when a person applies it, those asbestos fibers linger in the air, usually right in the person’s breathing zone, longer than the talc does.
Justin Shrader, a Houston lawyer who handles mesothelioma cases, said “many of the cosmetics that we have recently had analyzed have had asbestos material,” so some women have been exposed to asbestos daily as they applied their makeup.
Shrader described a male client whose mesothelioma presented a mystery to both his physicians and lawyers.
“The source of his illness was a mystery because to his knowledge he was never exposed to asbestos anywhere,” he said.
Finally, Shrader’s team figured out that his client, a barber, brushed talc on his customers’ necks every hour of every day he worked.
“Just as shockingly, he was probably exposing every person whose hair he cut to asbestos fibers, to say nothing of his co-workers,” Shrader said.
Government reports say talc _ the softest mineral known _ is used in thousands of products. Beginning early last century, it was used in the most popular baby powders, in several best-selling brands of dusting powder, on feminine hygiene products, on diaphragms, condoms, surgical and examining gloves, in pills and capsules, children’s balloons, in crayons as a strengthener, as well as a multitude of industrial applications. Today, cosmetic makers still use talc as a base in. blushes, powder compacts, eye shadows, foundations, and creams.
Public health scientists and researchers hired by law firms documented the presence of asbestos in many of these products.
The Food and Drug Administration has almost no control over cosmetics, the agency said in its online position papers on talc. The same documents blame regulations which say cosmetic products and ingredients do not have to undergo FDA review or approval before they go on the market. But they must be safe and properly labeled which is left to the manufacturers or importers.
Linda Reinstein said she has known many young women who have died from mesothelioma without occupational exposure.
Reinstein, who heads the international Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said, “The mesothelioma and cancers caused by asbestos-contaminated talc are far from a secret, yet the government does nothing.
“The EPA, the FDA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have sat idly by and ignored the health risks, so we may never know the actual health impact from contaminated talc in cosmetics or feminine products.”
“The fact that companies have … exposed millions of women and children to asbestos-laden talc is a symptom of the inadequacy of government protection of U.S. citizens,” said Dr. David Egilman, Clinical Professor of Family Medicine at Brown University’s School of Medicine and the editor-in-chief of the journal which published the study.
Margie Kelly, spokeswoman for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, added, “When it comes to cosmetics regulation it’s the Wild West. The FDA doesn’t have the authority to do much of anything to protect consumers because it is working with a 75-year-old law that has never been substantially updated, so consumers end up with unsafe cosmetics staying on store shelves even after harm has been proven.”
Written for Hearst Newspapers