Is talcum powder asbestos?

Dear Cecil: I’ve heard off and on for years that talcum powder is asbestos. Recently I was reading Coroner by Doctor Thomas Noguchi, and in the section on Janis Joplin where he talks about cutting agents used in heroin, he comes right out and says talcum powder is asbestos. If this is true, Bhopal, India, just took second place in the egregious industrial negligence contest — I’m selling my Johnson & Johnson stock before the nasties hit the fan. Is talcum powder asbestos? If it is, why is it sold for use on babies when it’s being removed from brakes, schools, and workplaces at a cost of millions? Michael G. Kramer, Los Angeles


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Tom Noguchi is a sweet guy, but on the subject of talc, at least, he’s about as reliable as a two-dollar alarm clock. Talcum powder, also known as talc, is not asbestos, although the two are mineralogically related. (They’re both silicates.) Sometimes talc is contaminated with asbestos, though, and that’s the source of all the problems.

What problems, you ask? Try ovarian cancer. For a while it was thought talc itself caused it. A 1982 epidemiological study found that women who dusted talc on the skin near the vagina or on sanitary napkins had one and a half times the normal risk of ovarian cancer. If they dusted it on both places, they had three times the risk. The researchers surmised that the talc worked its way up the reproductive tract to the ovaries and there went about its dirty business. (Baby girls were thought to be less at risk than adults because they were exposed to talc for only a few years and their reproductive tracts were too immature to transport the talc particles.)

A subsequent lab study, however, failed to find any sign that talc was actually transported to the ovaries in this way. In 1987 the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization officially absolved talc of suspicion.

The consensus today is that asbestos contaminants in talc are the real culprit. Asbestos, of course, can cause both cancer and lung disease and is dangerous even in minute amounts. In 1976 the cosmetic makers’ association called upon its members to keep their talc products asbestos-free. Johnson & Johnson says its baby powder never had it, never will, and blames the whole thing on low-class “industrial” (i.e., noncosmetic) talc. If you’d just as soon not take any chances, you’ll have to be careful; talc can be found in a variety of consumer products, including dusting powders, deodorants, chalk, textiles, pills, and soap.

Cecil Adams

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