Is your talc safe? Lack of consensus puts consumers at risk of cancer, lung problems

Health Canada studied talcum free of asbestos and found the popular cosmetic item can be harmful  

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Thursday 13 December 2018
Credit: Getty Images Credit: Getty Images

Talcum, a popular ingredient in hygiene and cosmetic products around the world, can affect the functioning of lungs and hamper your breathing. If used around genitals, the mineral can even lead to ovarian cancer, according to a draft assessment by Health Canada.

Deposits of talc—used in cosmetics, baby products, women’s hygiene products and antiperspirants—are often near deposits of asbestos and there is frequent cross-contamination. Asbestos has been linked with cancer.

The Health Canada study, released December 5, 2018, however, used samples free of asbestos and found it could still be harmful. The meta-analyses of the available human studies in the peer-reviewed literature indicate a consistent and statistically significant positive association between perineal exposure to talc and ovarian cancer.

This puts self-care products such as body powder, baby powder, diaper and rash creams, genital antiperspirants and deodorants, body wipes, bath bombs under a scanner.

The association of talc without asbestos and cancer was unclear until now. Many case-control studies found a small increase in risk. Though more research is needed, the American Cancer Society says for an individual, if there is an increased risk, the overall increase is likely to be small.

The issue has received judicial scrutiny too. A California jury on November 15 cleared Johnson & Johnson (J&J) of liability on a woman’s allegation that the pharmaceutical giant’s talc-based products contain asbestos and caused her lung cancer, mesothelioma.

J&J has been cleared of liability in three mesothelioma cases, but it also lost two cases and had to pay $142 million in damages. In case of ovarian cancer, a Missouri court awarded $4.7 billion to 22 women and their families as damages. Internal memos suggest the company knew of the presence of asbestos in its products but did not act to warn users or ensure that the product did not contain asbestos.

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