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The hidden dangers of talcum powder: ‘Why aren’t they warning people about it?’

By Prachi Mishra

Talcum powder is an intrinsic part of everyday lifestyle. Each one of us has sprinkled a dash of talcum over ourselves to not only improve our appearances and personal hygiene, but to also tackle the adverse effects of hot and humid weather.

However, most of the people are unaware about the fact that this soft and silky powder is slowly taking a toll on their health. The possible benefits of talcum powder are drastically outweighed by the hazards it causes.

From a last few years, certain concerns have been raised regarding its widespread use. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found out that talc containing asbestiform fibres is carcinogenic to humans, i.e. cancer-inducing. There have been several reports stating that talc inhalation is hazardous for infants and its use for personal hygiene can increase the risk of ovarian cancer in women.

A little trivia

Talcum powder is made up from talc, a mineral mainly comprising magnesium, silicon and oxygen. Its natural formation starts from soapstone composed of talc, chlorite, mica, quartz, tremolite, magnetite and iron. The soapstone gradually changes over time in the presence of carbon dioxide and water (carbonation) from hard dense rock to pure talc. In this natural form, some talc contains asbestos, a substance known to cause cancer.

The link between talc and cancer

In 1987, the International Agency for Research on Cancer wrote a review on the carcinogenicity of talc. It separated the powder into with and without asbestiform fibres. With time, some studies were also conducted amongst the talc workers in New York.

In the overall assessment, it was noticed that there’s enough evidence to prove that exposure to asbestiform containing talc can increase the risk of cancer in people.

In Japanese literature, the first report of death of an infant caused by inhaling baby powder dates back to 1961. K. Motomatsu, H. Adachi and T. Uno conducted an experiment in rats that revealed talc inhalation is fatal. They found that “it coats and dries the mucus membranes, causes hemorrhage, edema and desquamation of the bronchial epithelium, clogs up and compromises mucociliary clearance in the airways while larger quantities may completely obstruct airways.”

Several studies have reported an association between ovarian cancer and the use of talcum powder in genital area. In 2006, the IARC stated in a report that the perennial use of talcum powder can increase the risk of ovarian cancer in women.

A big name in pharmaceutics, Johnsons and Johnsons, is facing two lawsuits filed in 2014 by two women. Both the cases claim that the company has been responsible for giving ovarian cancer to women through their talcum powder products.

Deane Berg, a resident of South Dakota, stated in her lawsuit that she used Johnson’s Baby Powder and its Shower to Shower powder as a feminine hygiene product for several years. In late 2006, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She said that talc, a key ingredient in Johnson’s Baby Powder and in Shower to Shower, caused her cancer.

Doctors removed cancerous tissues from her body for examination and found talc particles embedded in those tissues and concluded that talcum powder was the cause of her cancer.

She claimed that Johnsons and Johnsons was negligent towards women’s health by not putting a warning about the dangers of using talc based powders.

Another woman, Mona Estrata, filed a case against Johnsons and Johnsons claiming that despite knowing the risks of its powder products, the company did nothing to warn its customers of the hazards of using them.

It’s surprising that despite such evidences of serious health effects caused by use of talcum powders in the West, people in India have continued to use them gladly. One of the major reasons for this is that people are not aware of the potential dangers of using talcum powders. Several pharmaceutical companies continue to manufacture powders containing talc without giving a statuary warning.

On asking about the risks involved with talcum powders, a doctor at Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi told NewsGram, “Absestos is a known risk factor for lung and abdominal carcinoma. Asbestos containing talc therefore should come with a warning. More studies on asbestos free talc should be undertaken on global basis for to look for possible carcinogenic side effects.”

There is a need to raise public awareness about the risks involved with talcum powders. The government regulatory bodies should ensure that the public is protected from the consumption of products that are hazardous.

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