Researchers are unanimous that talc or talcum powder can cause lung, ovarian, stomach and endometrial (uterine) cancers. They said talc consisting of asbestos is generally accepted as being able to cause cancer if it is inhaled or/and used regularly in the genital area. Evidence on asbestos-free talc is however less clear.
“The health implication of using talc that contains asbestos is that it causes cancer. The real worry is that talc powder is the main ingredient in powders used for rashes in babies and adults in Nigeria,” said a consultant epidemiologist, Dr. Anthony Nwaoney.
He noted: “It has been suggested that talcum powder might cause cancer in the ovaries if the powder particles (applied to the genital area or on sanitary napkins, diaphragms, or condoms) were to travel through the vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes to the ovary.”
The epidemiologist told The Guardian that concerns about a possible link between talcum powder and cancer have focused on: whether people who have long-term exposure to talc particles at work, such as talc miners, are at higher risk of lung cancer; and whether women who apply talcum powder regularly in the genital area have an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Talcum powder is made from talc, a mineral made up mainly of magnesium, silicon and oxygen. As a powder, it absorbs moisture well and cut down on friction, making it useful for keeping the skin dry and preventing rashes. It is widely used in cosmetic products such as baby powder and adult body and facial powders, as well as in a number of other consumer products. In its natural form, some talc extracts contain asbestos, a substance known to cause cancer in the lungs when inhaled.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Its major goal is to identify causes of cancer. IARC classifies talc that contains asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans.” Based on the lack of data from human studies and on limited data in lab animal studies, IARC classifies inhaled talc not containing asbestos as “not classifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans.”
Based on limited evidence from human studies of a link to ovarian cancer, IARC classifies the perineal (genital) use of talc-based body powder as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
While the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has remained silent on the issue, despite several queries from The Guardian, the Consumer Protection Council (CPC), early February 2019, alerted the public to substandard Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Talc Powder in circulation.
The agency said in a statement that following a “credible process”, the popular Johnson & Johnson (J&J) product, Johnson’s Baby Talc (Baby/Body), in circulation was found to be harmful and injurious to users.
The statement by the Director General, Babatunde Irukera, said a court in the United States decided the company failed to warn consumers about the potential health risks associated with using its baby and body powder products. The CPC said the plaintiffs in the case had claimed that asbestos caused them to develop ovarian cancer.
Although J&J has already indicated its intention to appeal the case, Irukera said the council considers it important to alert and educate consumers in Nigeria as they make choices on baby and body powders.
The council noted that scientific findings in support of the decision of the court above were otherwise inconclusive.
Indeed, over 6,600 consumers have filed baby powder lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson. Most of these consumers are women who have ovarian cancer. They claimed that their cancer developed due to the use of talcum powder on the genital. They also backed their claims with a variety of studies that have found that long-term use of talcum powder on female genitals may increase the risk of ovarian cancer.
A new study published in the journal Epidemiology, analysed the use of talcum powder in over 4,000 women with and without ovarian cancer. The authors found that talcum powder in the genital region may increase a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer by 33 per cent, especially in instances where the powder was used daily. The researchers insisted that more study is necessary to determine how talcum powder causes cancer.
In the meantime, the American Cancer Society suggests that it may be prudent to avoid or limit the use of products containing talc, if you are concerned about developing ovarian cancer.
A study published in the journal Toxicological and Environmental Chemistry further established that cosmetic facial talcum powders marketed in Nigeria contain toxic trace metals such as lead. The aim of the study was to determine the concentrations of Pb (lead), Cd (cadmium), Co (copper), and Cr (chromium) in cosmetic talcum powders regularly used in Nigeria.
According to the study, higher metal concentrations compared to others were obtained in few samples manufactured by certain companies, indicating that raw materials used and exogenous contamination could be major contributory factors.
The researchers said the results of the study were generally within regulatory limits and the slightly elevated levels of Pb (lead) in few samples indicate that the use of certain talcum powder products could constitute trace metal exposure routes to users. “Thus, there is a need for regulation of trace metal levels in cosmetic powders through the establishment of national guidelines,” they said.
According to another study published in American Journal of Industrial Medicine, lead acetate administered orally, cutaneously, or intraperitoneally causes kidney cancer, brain cancer (gliomas), and lung cancer in rodents, and acts synergistically with other carcinogens.
IARC classified lead as a “possible human carcinogen” based on sufficient animal data and insufficient human data in 1987.