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Talcum Powder – What You Won’t Read on the Label

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Keeping your baby’s bottom soft and dry shouldn’t mean exposing it to a potentially harmful and environmentally costly substance

Talcum powder is a traditional mainstay of freshness. We use it liberally on babies’ bottoms and to absorb perspiration on hot summer days and nights. A few of us are old enough to remember our mothers having special dishes of talc in the bathroom which had big inviting powder puffs to help you dust your body, and most of the bathroom floor, with the stuff.

But time marches on and the benign image of talc has taken a something of a knock.

In recent years considerable doubt has been cast on the safety of powders containing talc, particularly when used on babies. Indeed, some baby powders now include a warning on the label to keep the powder away from the child’s nose and mouth.

Potential contamination

Talc, or magnesium silicate, is made up of finely ground particles of stone. Because it originates in the ground, and is a mined product, it can be contaminated with other substances. In its raw state, for instance, talc contains asbestos.

Since the 1970s, manufacturers have removed most of the asbestos from the talc during processing, though traces may still remain in the finished product. Industrial exposure to asbestos, of course, is linked to serious lung disease, notably asbestosis, which can lead to lung cancer.

The harmful effects of talc on human tissue were first recorded in the 1930s. Although occupational exposure to talc has been shown to more than double the risk of lung cancer, everyday talc use can also be problematical. Even if it doesn’t contain asbestos, talc is still basically just finely ground particles of stone that can lodge in the lungs and never leave. Babies whose mothers smother them in talc have been shown to have a higher risk ofbreathing difficulties.

Since the early 1980s, records show that several thousand infants each year have died or become seriously ill following accidental inhalation of baby powder.

A cancer link

Some of the most worrying evidence relates to talc’s everyday use and the link with ovarian cancer. A series of studies in the late 1990s linked talc to ovarian cancer (see references), in which talc was observed in a number of ovarian and uterine tumours as well as in ovarian tissue. It has since been confirmed that talc, either placed on the perineum (or on the surface of underwear or sanitary towels), can reach the ovaries via ascent through the fallopian tubes. It is now estimated that women who frequently use talc on their genital area have three times the risk of developing ovarian cancer compared to non-users.

The talc once used in the manufacture of condoms carried a similar risk. In the 1960s the medical journal the Lancet reported the first case of a woman who had a significant amount of talc in her peritoneal (abdominal) cavity. Laboratory tests confirmed that the talc in her body matched that found on the surface of her husband’s condoms. The authors concluded that talc travelled up through the fallopian tubes and became implanted her abdomen. Talc sprinkled on diaphragms may also be implicated in such problems.

Frequent exposure

That big bottle of talcum powder or baby powder in the bathroom, however, isn’t our only exposure to talc. The fine white powder is a component of several common products, including eye-shadow, lipsticks, deodorants and soaps, in a market that is worth billions to the cosmetics industry.

It is likely that most women are using cosmetics on a daily basis that are talc-based. And of course the more we use, the greater the market demand; the greater the market demand, the more complex the problems associated with talc use become.