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Talcum Powder: The Hidden Dangers

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You've probably used it, or had it sprinkled on you at some time in your life. It's processed from a soft mineral compound of magnesium silicate, and is called talcum powder or just talc.

Talcum dusting powder is commonly used to reduce rashes and diaper irritation in babies and infants. But this practice is dangerous. It can result in the inhalation of significant amounts of powder, causing acute or chronic lung irritation, known as talcosis. However, this risk is readily avoidable as cornstarch powder is a safe and reliable alternative.

Manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, and widely distributed by Osco and Walgreens, besides other drug stores, women have been persuaded by advertisements to dust themselves with talcum powder to mask alleged genital odors. Not surprisingly, the powder has become a symbol of freshness and cleanliness for over five decades.

The first warning of the dangers of genital talc came in a 1971 report on the identification of talc particles in ovarian cancers, a finding sharply contested by Dr. G.Y. Hildick-Smith, Johnson & Johnson's medical director. However, a subsequent publication in the prestigious The Lancet warned that "The potentially harmful effects of talc . . . in the ovary . . . should not be ignored."

This warning was confirmed in a 1992 publication in Obstetrics & Gynecology which reported that a woman's frequent talc use on her genitals increased her risk of ovarian cancer by threefold. The talc in question was simple brand or generic 'baby powder.'

Subsequent to the 1992 report, at least a dozen other major science articles documenting the link between talc and ovarian cancer appeared in leading medical journals such as Cancer, The Lancet, and Oncology. The capstone of this research case against talc came in 2003 when the journal Anticancer Research published a 'meta-analysis,' or large scale review, of 16 previous published studies involving 11,933 women; a 33 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer was confirmed.

Not surprisingly, the mortality of ovarian cancer in women 65 years of age and older has escalated sharply, especially in black women who have a higher rate of talc use than other races.

Nearly 16,000 women in the U.S. die from ovarian cancer each year, which means it is the fourth most common fatal cancer in women. By some estimates, one out of five women regularly applies talc to her genitals. This usage occurs either through direct application, or as a result of tampons, sanitary pads and diaphragms that have been dusted with talc.

More acknowledgment of talc's dangers emerged even from the cosmetics industry. The president of the industry's Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association, Edward Kavanaugh, conceded in 2002 that talc is toxic and "can reach the human ovaries." Yet, inexplicably, talc manufacturers failed to warn women that the product could be dangerous to their health.

Nor has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even shown casual concern about the dangers of talc. The closest admission to this effect came in 1993 when the Acting Associate Commissioner for Legislative Affairs of the Department of Health and Human Services admitted "we are aware that there have been reports in the medical literature between frequent female perineal talc dusting over a protracted period of years, and an incremental increase in the statistical odds of subsequent development of certain ovarian cancers." Then, amazingly, this official went on to say that the FDA "is not considering to ban, restrict or require a warning statement on the label of talc containing products."

Aware of talc's extreme dangers and alarmed by continued governmental unresponsiveness, in 1994 the Cancer Prevention Coalition, supported by the New York Center for Constitutional Rights, submitted a Citizen's Petition to the FDA. This requested that talc genital dusting powder be labeled with an explicit warning of the major risks of ovarian cancer. However, the FDA again denied this petition.

In May 2008, the Cancer Prevention Coalition submitted another Citizen's Petition to the FDA. This was endorsed by a range of groups including the Organic Consumers Association, the International Association for Humanitarian Medicine, and Dr. Faye Williams of the National Congress of Black Women. We cited new scientific evidence on the dangers of talc, and requested the FDA to mandate that all talc products be labeled with this type of warning: "Frequent application of talcum powder in the female genital area substantially increases the risk of ovarian cancer." However, Andrew von Eschenbach, M.D., then Commissioner of the FDA, failed to respond to this petition.

It is anticipated that Margaret Hamburg, M.D., the highly respected new FDA Commissioner, will take prompt regulatory action to protect unsuspecting women from the extreme dangers of talc.

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health; Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition; The Albert Schweitzer Golden Grand Medalist for International Contributions to Cancer Prevention; and author of over 200 scientific articles and 15 books on the causes and prevention of cancer, including the groundbreaking The Politics of Cancer (1979), and Toxic Beauty (2009).

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