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Does talcum powder have asbestos in it?

At a trial held in St. Louis, MO in July of 2018, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay twenty two women over four billion dollars in damages after they developed ovarian cancer. The jury found their cancer was caused by talcum powder in products such as Johnson's Baby Powder and Shower to Shower. A similar verdict was reached in a California court last year. 

How does asbestos get into talcum powder?

The women in these cases had asbestos and talc embedded in their tissues. So, how does that happen? First of all, use of talc for feminine hygiene is an age old practice, with many women using it daily for decades. But why is asbestos found in talcum powder?

Both talc and asbestos are minerals, and they form in similar geologic environments. Talc is a very soft mineral, with a velvety feel. It is easily absorbed by our bodies and lungs. In nature, it is platy and breaks apart easily, but may look like fibers, similar to asbestos. Asbestos is a group of six minerals with strong yet flexible fibers and is an insulator resistant to heat. Although it is a mineral, it strongly resembles fabric fibers, becoming embedded in the lungs and tissues when inhaled.

Both form in the same environment

Talc and asbestos form in similar geological environments. When hot water and pressure weather older volcanic rocks, or dolomite and limestone, certain minerals are dissolved, moved and redeposited by the water. When those redeposited minerals are subjected to more heat and pressure, both talc and asbestos form.

Because these minerals are formed from similar processes, you find both in an ore deposit. Talc and asbestos are frequently intermixed with one another, due to talc's softness, and the fibrous structure of both minerals. Once the ore is mined and removed for processing, the talc is separated from other co-occurring minerals by grinding and rolling the rock to break it down into a powder, followed by floatation or magnetics to pull out the other minerals. However, the characteristics of both minerals share enough similarities to make it impossible to remove all asbestos from talc deposits. Instead, the focus was on finding ores with low asbestos content for talc used in cosmetics.

Talc extraction and processing causes unavoidable contamination

Due to talc's softness and variation in naturally forming rock formations, the levels of asbestos found in products varies. Talc used for cosmetics is generally 95% pure or higher, with other impurities such as asbestos present.

However, it is this issue on the quantity of asbestos in the talc that is the heart of the lawsuits. Attorneys and expert witnesses examine how often talc products were tested for asbestos, the accuracy of those tests, how test levels varied over time and whether the source mine changed, the company's duty to warn consumers of the risk of developing cancer, and the reasons why they failed to do so.

If you or a loved one have used talcum powder regularly, be sure to discuss any symptoms with your doctor.

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