FDA Kept Silent for Decades Despite Evidence of Talc Contamination

A bottle of talcum powder

Johnson & Johnson currently faces a legal nightmare, with more than 16,000 lawsuits filed against it. All of these lawsuits claim that the company’s baby powder contains trace amounts of asbestos. This deadly mineral has been linked to ovarian cancer and mesothelioma.

As a result of these lawsuits, talcum powder cancer has become a hot-button issue. Other companies — and even U.S. government agencies — have come under criticism for how they have handled the talc crisis.

According to a Reuters special report, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knew for years that there were health concerns about the talc in powders and cosmetics, but did nothing about it.

The rash of recent lawsuits against J&J forced the FDA to step up and finally acknowledge the problem — although critics say the agency is still bowing to industry pressure.

FDA Talc Symposium Draws Controversy

The FDA sponsored the “Asbestos in Talc Symposium” in November 2018, but many of the participants had worked for talcum powder companies at some point. Some had even served as expert witnesses and consultants for the talc companies through the years.

The event was by invitation only, and Dr. David Egilman never got one.

Egilman, a professor of family medicine at Brown University, testified in a trial that yielded a $4.69 billion verdict for women that claimed J&J’s talcum powder caused them to develop ovarian cancer.

Egilman hoped to offer his expertise as a physician and researcher on what doctors should look for under the microscope. He expressed concerns about which mineral fibers cause cancer, as geologists and industry consultants who were guiding the symposium might know little about the issues.

Determining which fibers are toxic to human health is often a key topic in J&J lawsuits related to talcum powder cancer.

FDA cosmetics chief Dr. Linda Katz informed Egilman in an email that the meeting was “not intended to discuss health-related issues or concerns.”

She added that no consensus was expected to be reached — yet three participants, who had formerly served as defense witnesses for J&J, drafted documents they called “consensus” or “concurrence” reports.

Two of the reports discouraged counting fibers that may possibly be asbestos in tests, which is directly against what most U.S. and European public health officials recommend to do.

A Long History of Deferring to the Industry

Reuters asserts that the FDA has allowed the talc industry to set their own safety rules for their products over the last 50 years.

“When something as serious as cancer or carcinogens are at issue, self-regulation doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois congressman who chairs a U.S. House subcommittee investigating talcum powder risks.

Further, Reuters uncovered many controversial FDA actions when digging through the agency’s history.

Here is a timeline of important FDA decisions:

  • 1973: The FDA finds asbestos in a sample of J&J’s Shower to Shower powder, but never announces the finding.
  • 1973: J&J, along with other talc companies and the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA), convinces the FDA that they could monitor the safety of their own products. The FDA ends plans to test talc samples and the CTFA publishes its own test for the companies to use.
  • 1986: A graduate student who learned talc deposits are often laced with asbestos petitions the FDA to require a warning on talc powders. Using information from J&J, the FDA determines this warning is not needed.
  • 1994: The FDA receives a request from Dr. Samuel Epstein, a University of Illinois environmental medicine professor, to put a warning label on talc powders. Epstein’s research showed talc itself could lead to ovarian cancer. The FDA denies the petition.
  • 2006: The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said using talc in the pelvic region was “possibly carcinogenic.” Dr. Epstein files a second petition to the FDA. Despite protests from J&J, the FDA finally performs its own tests. While no asbestos was found, the lab that tested the sample had no prior experience testing for asbestos in talc.

In 2019, Krishnamoorthi called for the FDA to bring consumers and their advocates into the discussion rather than relying on the industry.

“In light of the public interest around this particular issue, we need to find out what’s going on,” he said.

FDA Finally Takes Action

In October 2019, the FDA finally tested samples of J&J baby powder that the federal regulator purchased online. Their testing revealed trace amounts of asbestos in the talc.

J&J responded to the findings by voluntarily recalling 33,000 bottles that came from the same shipment that the FDA tested.

Meanwhile, J&J began its own investigation of the tainted talc and claimed it had no asbestos. The FDA stood by its findings.

Furthermore, the FDA plans to hold a public hearing sometime in 2020. The event should reveal how the agency, which has long relied on the talc industry for expertise, will address consumer concerns over this issue.

Beth Swantek
Written by:

Contributing Writer

ReferencesView References
  1. Girion, L. and C. Terhune. (2019, Dec. 3). FDA bowed to industry for decades as alarms were sounding over talc. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-health-fda-talc/   
  2. Steenhuysen, J. and L. Girion. (2019, Oct. 18). J&J recalls 33,000 bottles of baby powder as FDA finds asbestos in sample. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-johnson-johnson-talc/jj-recalls-33000-bottles-of-baby-powder-as-fda-finds-asbestos-in-sample-idUSKBN1WX1L3

Other Articles

3 min read

Johnson & Johnson Subject of DOJ Investigation

Johnson’s Baby Powder Draws Concerns from Government Johnson & Johnson is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over claims that the company’s baby powder contains asbestos, ABC News reports. The investigation comes on the heels of recent lawsuits and reports alleging the company knew their…

3 min read

Top Studies Reveal Link Between Talcum Powder and Ovarian Cancer

Several studies have investigated the possible link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer. Although many studies have been inconclusive, others have revealed an increased risk of ovarian cancer for women who use products containing talc. Thousands of ongoing Johnson & Johnson® lawsuits are shedding light on the medical connection between talc and cancer. Although J&J…

3 min read

Which Forms of Talc Cosmetics Are Dangerous to My Health?

Talc is a naturally occurring mineral that appears in many cosmetics and personal hygiene products. However, while talc in cosmetics products is fairly prevalent, they’re not always safe to use. With the recent news about talc causing ovarian cancer and mesothelioma, many women are checking the ingredients in their cosmetics and products carefully. According to…