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FDA Holds Public Hearing-Stands Up to Cosmetic Talc Industry on Asbestos Testing Standards

On February 4, 2020, the FDA held a public hearing on testing methodology for asbestos in talc and cosmetics. This is the first time the FDA has held a public hearing on the matter for nearly 50 years.

Since the 1970s, the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have limited their oversight to asbestos in the workplace and environment. As a result, the cosmetics industry has largely been left to police itself. Although talc and asbestos are similar minerals, often found together, the FDA has never required manufacturers of talc products to test for the carcinogen.

Public concern over asbestos in talc was ignited by a December 2018 Reuters News Investigative Report finding that Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) knew for decades its iconic Baby Powder contained asbestos, but concealed this knowledge from the public.

Spurred by public response to these revelations, the FDA tested cosmetic talc products and found asbestos in numerous products, many of which are marketed to children and young teens. In October 2019, the FDA announced that its testing found asbestos in Johnson’s Baby Powder.

At the February 4 hearing, a panel of government experts, citing the recent FDA findings, recommended much more stringent testing standards to protect the public from cancer-causing asbestos in talc.

Not surprisingly, the panel’s recommendations were met with strong resistance from the cosmetics industry—which still ignores that asbestos in talc is a legitimate concern and is never at a loss for an “excuse” for findings of asbestos in cosmetic talc. For example, even after recalling 33,000 bottles of its Baby Powder following the FDA’s finding of asbestos contamination in October 2019, J&J incredulously “blamed” the asbestos on a faulty air conditioner in the FDA lab!

Another “excuse” frequently cited by J&J and industry representatives is that the asbestos found in talc is “not really” asbestos, but instead non-asbestiform mineral particles.

Clearly aware of this tactic, the government experts recommending more stringent testing at the February 4 hearing, also recommended that all mineral particles found in talc products small enough to be drawn into the lungs, even those the industry would not technically categorize as asbestos, should be counted as harmful. The government experts noted that both asbestos and allegedly look-alike minerals are suspected of causing “similar pathological outcomes,” so the “distinction is irrelevant.”

The hearing concluded with no formal action by the FDA, only an announcement that government experts from the FDA and other agencies will continue studying the issues. But a significant take-away from the meeting is that, after nearly 50 years, the FDA appears to be finally standing up to the powerful cosmetics industry in addressing long-overdue changes to testing for asbestos in talc.

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