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Asbestos and Talcum Powder: A History of Industry Pushback

The Food and Drug Administration recently found trace levels of chrysotile asbestos in Johnson & Johnson baby powder, prompting the company to recall 33,000 containers of it. Johnson & Johnson also faces a $4.8 billion judgment in longstanding lawsuits from thousands of people who say they got cancer from asbestos in baby powder. But the company says its consumer talc products are safe. Even after the product recall, J&J questioned whether the FDA tests were accurate.

This back-and-forth over whether talcum powder contains asbestos, and if so, what levels are safe, is nothing new. Consumers, activists, scientists, and regulators have been raising concerns for decades, and the industry has a long history of successful pushback. That history is documented in an article in the American Journal of Public Health written by Professor Gerald Markowitz (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The Graduate Center) and Columbia University Professors David Rosner and Merlin Chowkwanyun.

Talc mined from the earth is often found near asbestos deposits. Concerns about contamination first surfaced in the 1930s when talc workers showed symptoms of lung damage associated with asbestos exposure. In the 1960s, researchers who found asbestos in cosmetic talc products said it was “difficult to conceive of a better way” of inhaling fibers than using such powders.

In 1971, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration convened manufacturers and scientists to discuss methods for measuring asbestos in talc products “in light of the growing evidence that even the smallest exposures to asbestos could prove carcinogenic.” As Markowitz and his co-authors relate, by 1972, a scientist contracted by the FDA concluded that more than 40 percent of commercial talc products tested contained asbestos. In 1973, the FDA proposed that products containing talc had to be 99.9% free of amphibole asbestos and 99.99% free of chrysotile.

But the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA) fought back, calling the FDA’s tests unreliable and arguing for methodologies that were less sensitive to detecting asbestos. By 1975, the industry was allowed to self-regulate using the less sensitive techniques. As a result, talc could be defined as safe because it had “no detectable” asbestos.

Complaints continued anyway. In 1976, researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital announced they’d found asbestos in 10 talcum powder samples they’d bought off the shelf. After industry representatives visited the hospital, a Mount Sinai official backtracked, calling baby powder “useful and safe.” In 1995, a citizen advocacy group asked the FDA to label cosmetic talc products as potential carcinogens, but the CTFA again prevailed, saying warnings would “unnecessarily alarm consumers.”

Recent lawsuits “have once again brought the issue of asbestos in talc to public attention,” Markowitz and his co-authors wrote. “The consequences of industry’s actions and inactions — and of its knowledge or lack thereof — that were identified a half century ago are still with us.”

The journal article was based on a 2017 court report that Markowitz and Rosner produced for a legal case.

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“Nondetected”: The Politics of Measurement of Asbestos in Talc, 1971–1976
American Public Health Association , 2019

Work By

Gerald Markowitz (Distinguished Professor, History/Interdisciplinary Studies) | Profile 1