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Much Ado About Asbestos


In the Philippines, you’d be hard-pressed to find a home that doesn’t have a bottle of talc powder, more popularly known as baby powder. It’s a must-have for mothers diapering their babies or dressing up their kids, as well as for teens and grown-ups who rely on it as a quick pick-me-up—to freshen up the skin in the sweltering heat.

But this household staple, particularly one from a brand that has been trusted by families all over the world for several decades, is currently at the center of much controversy following allegations of asbestos contamination in the U.S. On Oct. 18, healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson recalled 33,000 bottles of their Johnson’s Baby Powder after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discovered traces of asbestos, a known carcinogen, in samples taken from a bottle purchased online.
The company, however, maintains that its products are asbestos-free. “The safety of those who use our products is our top priority, and we determined to initiate the voluntary recall of a single lot of Johnson’s Baby Powder solely in the United States out of an abundance of caution,” J&J said in a statement.

More recently, J&J announced that 15 new tests of the same bottle previously tested by the FDA found no asbestos, while an additional 48 new laboratory tests from the single lot of powder that was recalled also confirm this. But all the same, the FDA continues to stand by its initial findings of contamination and continues to support the company’s voluntary recall.

Asbestos and its dangers
To someone who is not familiar with asbestos, it may be easy to dismiss this whole controversy as just another modern ruse or sensationalized story. But ask any healthcare professional and she’ll tell you this: Asbestos contamination should never be taken lightly.

For your information, asbestos refers to six naturally occurring fibrous minerals naturally found in rock and soil. It was once considered a “magic mineral” given its ability to resist heat, fire, and electricity, making it very useful in construction and industrial settings. Unfortunately, it’s highly toxic. Through the years, asbestos has been proven to be extremely hazardous to humans when it becomes disrupted and airborne.

Once ingested or inhaled, asbestos particles can easily cling to the tissues of the lungs and other areas of the respiratory system and may travel to other parts of the body. Since the fibers are extremely durable, they can’t be broken down or removed by our immune system. Over time, they can cause scarring and inflammation, and eventually, tumors. Among the health risks of asbestos exposure are chronic respiratory illnesses, lung cancer, and mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer that forms in the mesothelium or the thin membrane that protects vital organs in the chest and the abdomen. Numerous studies have also linked asbestos exposure with higher risks of ovarian cancer in women.

Direct contact between asbestos and the skin also poses similar risks, as asbestos can enter the body and travel through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. Immediate symptoms of exposure are the following: a burning or itching sensation, prickling pain or tingling, redness, and rashes. These symptoms may not be felt when exposed to significantly low amounts of asbestos, but studies have shown that continued and prolonged exposure—like what is experienced by people who work at mines or at factories that use asbestos—increases the risk of developing illnesses later on.

Asbestos in talc
But how can asbestos find its way into your baby powder? For starters, talcum powder is essentially the refined form of the softest mineral on earth, talc, known as an “inert” ingredient—meaning it doesn’t generate a chemical reaction on the skin and in the body. It’s also very smooth and absorbent, making it a useful cosmetic ingredient: keeping oil and moisture at bay, improving the skin texture, and preventing rashes.

Since talc is a natural ingredient sourced from the earth, some talc, in its natural form, may contain asbestos, another mineral that exists underground. This is why rigorous analysis, selection, and testing are crucial in the production of talc powder. At Johnson & Johnson, the company claims that only pharmaceutical grade talc is used in their baby powder. On its own, cosmetic talc has long been deemed safe, and this is supported by over 40 years of research.

So is it safe to use talc powder?
In a recent study published in the international journal of the Society of Risk Analysis in the U.S., researchers conducted a risk assessment evaluating the potential inhalation asbestos exposure associated with the cosmetic talc consumer use in scenarios such as infant diapering, and adult face and body powdering. The study found that risks—assuming an asbestos content of 0.1 percent—were within or below acceptable target risk levels, and consistent with the findings of previous research.

Nonetheless, it’s still easy to feel dubious as science experts continue to warn that no amount of asbestos exposure is safe. The good news? Baby powder products in the Philippines are not included in the J&J recall, as the company continues to stand by the safety of its products.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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