The news, announced Tuesday, that Johnson & Johnson will soon end the sale of baby powder with talc is long overdue.
Because talc and asbestos can form in the same parent rock, cosmetics made with talc can become contaminated with the deadly carcinogen, which is responsible for the death of thousands of Americans every year.
Cosmetics companies have known since the 1950s that talc could be contaminated with asbestos, and the public was alerted in the early 1970s. But the cosmetics industry persuaded the Food and Drug Administration it could be trusted to regulate its own products – and that cosmetics companies should be allowed to rely on an asbestos detection method that could see some but not all asbestos fibers.
That has proven to be a tragic mistake. As The New York Times reported, “the product that once defined [Johnson & Johnson’s] wholesome image” has triggered “thousands of lawsuits filed by patients who say it caused cancer.”
Thanks to the leadership of Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), Congress is inching closer to directing the FDA to review and, if necessary, ban or restrict some dangerous chemicals and contaminants to ensure that these everyday products are safe. The FDA has worked with others to develop an asbestos testing method that will more accurately detect the deadly asbestos fibers that can lodge in our lungs once they are inhaled.
But efforts to finally modernize cosmetics law have been sidelined, for the moment, by the COVID-19 pandemic. And the FDA is not proposing to make this new, more accurate detection method mandatory. That’s why responsible companies should follow the lead of J&J and simply end the use of talc in loose powders.
Many well-known brands continue to use talc in body and facial powders that can be inhaled, and EWG has identified more than 2,000 products that contain talc. How much talc is inhaled – and how much is contaminated with asbestos – is difficult to estimate. But it only takes one asbestos fiber, lodged in the lungs, to cause mesothelioma decades later.
EWG Action Fund, EWG’s 501(c)(4) sister organization, has calculated that 12,000 to 15,000 Americans a year die from asbestos-related diseases. In all, from 1999 to 2017 an estimated 236,981 to 277,654 Americans died from asbestos exposure.
In recent years, many cosmetics industry leaders have reformulated their products and joined with public health groups like EWG to update cosmetics laws that were enacted more than 80 years ago. Just last week in California, the Personal Care Products Council joined EWG, Black Women for Wellness, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and CalPIRG to support state legislation to ban 12 chemicals from cosmetics by 2025, including formaldehyde, mercury, and some phthalates and parabens.
Responsible companies should build on this progress by finally ending the use of talc in loose powders.