What is talc and why is it all over the news?

More than 11,700 women have sued Johnson & Johnson over accusations that the talc used in its Baby Powder product caused their ovarian cancer — and they now have a legal front due to a $4.69 billion lawsuit against the company by 22 women that went in favour of the latter.

Due to the lawsuit old company documents from J&J ended up in the hands of the public and were reported on by Reuters, who alleged that it’s “impossible” to completely purify mined talc and that tests for asbestos can’t be completely accurately. The article focuses on reports that the company commissioned in the 1970s, which proved that customers and the FDA were misled about asbestos was showing up in samples of talc that the company was using.

J&J has been dealing with bad press for the longest time — including lawsuits over vaginal mesh implant procedures gone wrong, for being partially responsible for the opioid crisis and backlash over including formaldehyde-releasing ingredients in its baby care products.

The 2016 lawsuit is interesting because it suggests that in the 90s, the company targeted black and Hispanic women for more aggressive marketing because they were already using the powder more than white women. But there’s still no clear link between ovarian cancer and talc and it’ll be difficult to prove that the asbestos found in past testing was capable of causing it. The fact that asbestos is dangerous to be around and is a dangerous carcinogen is not in question.

With all the negative publicity, J&J is going into full-on PR mode, publishing its own website to dispute the findings of the reports, sending out a press release to refute the claims and going as far as taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times. However — even if the claims are proven to be unsubstantiated — the legal bills and public backlash won’t go away anytime soon, with J&J’s reputation facing a major setback that will be difficult to fix.

Talc, as it appears in raw form. 📸:  Wikimedia

Talc, as it appears in raw form. 📸: Wikimedia

What is talc and what does asbestos have to do with it?

Talc is a mineral found in underground deposits and is the softest material known, making it appealing for companies to use in numerous products. It’s made up of magnesium, silicon, oxygen and hydrogen, according to the FDA.

Talc has many uses in cosmetics and other personal care products; in food, such as rice and chewing gum; and in the manufacture of tablets. For example, it may be used to absorb moisture, to prevent caking, to make facial makeup opaque, or to improve the feel of a product.

Asbestos is found underground, too, and the veins of the carcinogen can often be found stretching into talc deposits, leading to the possibility of cross-contamination.

What other products contain talc?

It can be found in numerous cosmetic products — ranging from blush to eye shadow, foundation, face powder and more. Talc can be found as an ingredient in pills, children’s toys, gum and until the 1990s, medical gloves and condoms, until the FDA told companies to stop using it due to health concerns.

Are there any alternatives?

Cornstarch is being heralded as a good alternative to baby powder, but there’s also companies producing talc- free baby powder, including Burt’s Bees and Equate, though J&J produces a version of the product with cornstarch, too.

How has J&J responded to the claims?

The company responded in a lengthy PR post, created a website to dispute the findings by Reuters and took out a full page ad in The New York Times, all in an attempt at proving that talc is not harmful.