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FDA panel urges higher testing standards for asbestos in cosmetics

Many cosmetics, from baby powder to eye shadow, contain talcum powder. Unfortunately, evidence increasingly suggests that talc sometimes contains asbestos, and exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma, lung cancer, or certain non-malignant lung diseases.

Public health authorities have long warned of the potential for asbestos-related diseases among people who routinely use talc products. Thousands of plaintiffs around the country are suing Johnson & Johnson alleging its Baby Powder contained asbestos and caused them to develop mesothelioma or ovarian cancer.

Now, a panel of experts formed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is recommending new testing standards for asbestos in cosmetic products. The experts were drawn from eight U.S. agencies, including one from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and another with the U.S. Geological Survey. They will present their recommendations at a Feb. 4 hearing at FDA headquarters.

This hearing will be the first focused on testing for asbestos in cosmetic talc held since 1971.

Panel: Consider asbestos lookalikes to equal asbestos

According to Reuters, the panel's most significant recommendation is that the FDA consider all microscopic mineral particles in talc to be potentially harmful, even if the industry doesn't technically consider these to be asbestos. These particles are thought to cause similar health problems to asbestos.

The panel also called for talcum powders in cosmetics to be tested with the most sensitive methods. They emphasized statements by the World Health Organization and other public health agencies that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Reuters also pointed out that, as late as 2018, the FDA sponsored a closed-door meeting in which industry experts apparently downplayed the potential hazards of asbestos lookalikes in talc.

Although talc, asbestos and asbestos lookalikes are often found together in the environment, the FDA has never ordered cosmetics companies to test for asbestos.

A Reuters report indicates that Johnson & Johnson knew in the 1970s that its talc sometimes contained asbestos but never reported that information to the FDA. Indeed, Reuters found evidence that J&J actively tried to cover it up, although the company denies it. Another Reuters report found that the FDA deferred to the talc industry for decades even though there was evidence that talc sometimes contained asbestos.

At the hearing Feb. 4, the FDA will consider this expert panel's guidance as it decides whether to require standardized testing for asbestos in cosmetic talc. The agency has not announced a timetable for its review.

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