Regulatory agencies such as the FDA and the IRAC are not sure about the link between cancer and the mineral talc. Yet a Missouri jury awarded $72 million to a family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer. She had used Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower for “feminine hygiene” for more than 35 years.
Johnson & Johnson faces claims that in order to boost sales, failed for decades to warn consumers its talc-based products could cause cancer. About 1,000 cases have now been filed in Missouri state court, and another 200 in New Jersey.
As far back as 1971, a warning that particles of talc were found in ovarian cancers was published in The International Obstetrics Journal by British researchers.. The finding was disputed by Dr. G.Y. Hildick-Smith, Johnson & Johnson’s medical director. However, a subsequent publication in the respected journal The Lancet warned that “The potentially harmful effects of talc in the ovary should not be ignored.”
Seven years later, I reported in my Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients (Crown Publishers):
TALC • French Chalk. The main ingredient of baby and bath powders, face powders, eye shadows, liquid powders, protective creams, dry rouges, face masks, foundation cake makeups, skin fresheners, foot powders, and face creams. Gives a slippery sensation to powders and creams. Talc is finely powdered native magnesium silicate, a mineral. It usually has small amounts of other powders such as boric acid or zinc oxide added as a coloring ingredient. Prolonged inhalation can cause lung problems because it is similar in chemical composition to asbestos, a known lung irritant and cancer-causing ingredient.
TALCUM POWDER • Talc-based powders have been linked to ovarian cancer. In Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, of 215 women with ovarian cancer, 32 had used talcum powder on their genitals and sanitary napkins. Talc easily works its way up the reproductive tract. Eventually, a few particles reach the ovary and may set the stage for cancer. All factors considered in the study, the risk of ovarian cancer was raised to 3.28 times greater for women who use talc than for women who don’t. Daniel Cramer, M.D., the obstetrician-gynecologist who wrote of the findings in the journal Cancer, said further studies are needed before doctors could recommend that women should not use talc but said that he, himself, advises patients to use other products such as cornstarch-based powders or creams. Talcum powder has been reported to cause coughing, vomiting, or even pneumonia when it is used carelessly.
The same year, 1978, I listed Talc in my Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives as:
TALC • French Chalk. Magnesium Silicate. The lumps are known as soap steatite. An anticaking additive added to vitamin supplements to render a free flow; also to chewing-gum base, rice, herbs, spices, seasonings (including salt substitutes), and condiments (e.g., seasoning for instant noodles). Also used in animal feed. Gives a slippery sensation to powders and creams. In olive oil production, as a processing aid to increase yield and improve the clarity of the oil. Prolonged inhalation can cause lung problems because it is similar in chemical composition to asbestos, a known lung irritant and cancer-causing ingredient in its powdered state. There is no known acute toxicity, but there is a question about it being a cancer-causing additive upon ingestion. It is suspected that the high incidence of stomach cancer among the Japanese is due to the fact that the Japanese prefer that their rice be treated with talc. GRAS. ASP. E 553b
Note: (GRAS Generally Recognized As Safe by the FDA) (ASP FDA’s designation a food additive is fully up-to-date toxicology has been sought.) ( E 553b means it has passed safety tests and is approved for use by European Food Additives and Food Enzymes Industries and the European Union)
Fourteen years later, a report was published in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology which revealed a woman’s frequent talc use on her genitals increased her risk of ovarian cancer by threefold. The talc in question was simple brand or generic ‘baby powder.
That was 45 years after the first report about talc and 42 years after my Dictionary listings. The definitive answer to whether talc is cancer causing agent in humans and animals still an enigma: exposed lab animals (rats, mice, and hamsters) to asbestos-free talc in various ways have had mixed results, with some showing tumor formation and others not finding any.
Many studies in women have looked at the possible link between talcum powder and cancer of the ovary. Findings have again been mixed: Some reported a slight increase in risk and some reporting no increase.
One study suggested genital talcum powder use may slightly increase the risk of endometrial (uterine) cancer in women who are past menopause. But other studies have not found such a link. Some limited research has also looked at a possible link between inhaled talc exposure at work and other cancers, such as stomach cancer. But there is no strong evidence reported right now of a connection.
The industry has said that when talc does not contain any asbestos— it next door neighbor, which is known cancer causing agent— talc powder is safe.
Johnson and Johnson will probably eliminate talc from all its bath and baby powders.
We know, however, for more than four decades there have been questions about talc. The FDA knew about the potential problems but just now is publicaly “alert” to them because of the publicity about multi-million dollar court suits against Johnson & Johnson.
What about other regulatory agencies?
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is the World Health Organization’s major cancer investigating arm
- IARC classifies talc that contains asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans.”
- Based on the lack of data from human studies and on limited data in lab animal studies, IARC classifies inhaled talcnot containing asbestos as “not classifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans.”
- Based on limited evidence from human studies of a link to ovarian cancer, IARC classifies the perineal (genital) use of talc-based body powder as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
The US National Toxicology Program (NTP) is formed from parts of several different government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The NTP has not fully reviewed talc (with or without asbestos) as a possible carcinogen.
Studies in both animals and human have not provided proof that talc causes ovarian cancer. If it is mixed asbestos, its next door neighbor — a known cancer causing agent—than talc may be an accessory to the dirty deed. But its shape is similar to asbestos.
It’s time we solved the enigma of the mineral safety through unfettered, well controlled scientific studies.
In the meantime, products containing corn starch are –so far — considered innocuous and soothing.