Talcum powder results from crushing, drying, and milling talc, a naturally occurring mineral.
Talc or talcum powder prevents caking, absorbs moisture, lubricates, and adds softness and gloss to products.
Despite the wide talcum powder use, inhalation of the talc particles of talcum-based powders and products can lead to minor symptoms like coughing and sneezing. However, it can lead to more serious respiratory diseases and conditions like difficulty breathing, respiratory distress, poor circulation, and insufficient oxygen.
Talc is a naturally occurring soft mineral found in the rock deposit in the earth’s crust. It is a form of magnesium silicate hydroxide with a chemical formula of Mg3Si4O10(OH)2. It goes by the names: hydrated magnesium silicate, hydrous magnesium silicate, and magnesium silicate hydrous. We commonly know it as talcum. It is also called soapstone because it feels waxy and soapy to the touch.
You can usually find talc mines near asbestos mines. While mining talc, asbestos particles may accidentally mix, resulting in asbestos-contaminated talc. Talc may also contain traces of impurities such as nickel, iron, cobalt, and other minerals.
Purified talc refers to asbestos-free talc that has undergone the refining process. This purified talc is used in baby powders, facial powders, cosmetic products, and other talc products. As a result, cosmetics companies should choose mining sites carefully and regularly check and process their talc-containing products to stay free from asbestos.
Talcum powder is used as a skin treatment, particularly for babies to help soothe their skin. In addition, it can give products a smoother texture.
In the food industry, talcum powder as a food additive prevents food from sticking in boiled sweets, cured meats, and chewing gum. It improves olive oil’s yield and clarity in its production and processing.
For agriculture, talc is beneficial as a non-caking agent in animal feeds and fertilizers to function efficiently. In addition, it is an ideal carrier for premises and agricultural chemicals, such as insecticides.
In ceramics, talcum powder is used as a flux and reduces firing temperatures and cycles in traditional building ceramics (floor and wall tiles and sanitaryware). In addition, it improves thermal shock resistance in refractory applications.
Talcum powder is also beneficial for coatings and paints. It improves the efficiency of paint and makes the paint easier to apply while improving cracking resistance and sagging. Talc is also added into inks, jointing compounds, putties, and adhesives.
Talc improves printability and reduces surface friction for the paper industry, giving significant improvements to productivity.
In the personal care sector, talc has been used in cosmetics for a very long time. It is responsible for cosmetic products’ softness, inertness, and silkiness like blushes, eye shadows, make-up foundations, and face powders.
Talcum powder serves as countertops in chemical laboratories; it lubricates and prevents sheeted products like particle boards from sticking on each other; and it serves as a filler for soap, putty, plaster, oilcloth, and rubber products.
Talcum powder has industrial applications in glass manufacture, electrical devices insulation, industrial furnaces as a refractory material, and clean-up operations after oil spills. It also functions as an odor absorber in industries. In addition, it is helpful for rubber products, plastic products, roofing materials, and antiseptics.
Miners and millers mine talc ores on carefully chosen mining sites. Trucks haul the talc ores to the plant from the nearby mine. It is crushed with a jaw crusher and is screened. Workers return the coarse or oversized talc ores to the crusher. Then, they dry the material using rotary dryers.
Talc millers grind the material using different mills like pebble and roller mills. Then, they air dry the material using heated air that roller mills and other specialized mills generate to produce the final product—the talcum powder.
Then, separators (air classifiers) separate the material into coarse, coarse-plus-fine, and fine portions. They store the first two classifications. Next, the fines undergo a tabling process using a shaking table to separate the product from the small quantities of nickel, iron, cobalt, asbestos, and other minerals. The resulting product then undergoes a one-step flotation process.
Workers dewater and filter the talc slush, pass it through a flash dryer, and store the resulting product for shipment if it meets customer specifications. Depending on specified applications, they may also form it into pellets before packaging. Finally, they mix the processed talc with water to create a paste in the pelletizing process.
Some studies answer affirmatively, while others answer the opposite. Some experts require further research on the topic.
Despite the benefits of talcum powder use, talcum-based powders and products are linked as the cause of various types of cancer and diseases. For example, scientific sources state that talcum powder exposure can lead to lung conditions and diseases such as lung inflammation, talcosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, bronchial cancer, diffuse pleural thickening, emphysema, esophageal cancer, lung scarring, pneumonia, pulmonary fibrosis, throat cancer, and chronic bronchitis.
Specifically, we focus on lung inflammation, talcosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer below.
Inflammation is the natural process of our body’s immune system to deal with infection, injury, and harmful substances.
Lung inflammation can be acute (short-term: days to weeks) or chronic (long-term: 6 weeks or longer). In some instances, the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells due to an autoimmune condition like asthma, leading to chronic inflammation.
If you have or experience the following, you might have inflammation of the lungs:
- general sense of fatigue
- dry or productive cough
- trouble breathing
- chest tightness or discomfort
- tired after an activity
- wheezing or gasping for air
The length of time a symptom develops depends on the extent of inflammation, its cause, and your general health. For example, you may sometimes experience recurring lung inflammation.
Lung inflammation can occur in one or both lungs or the different areas of the lungs. Other health conditions, stress, or allergens can also cause inflammation. Bacterial, fungal, and viral infections like pneumonia and noninfectious causes, such as pneumonitis or specific allergic reaction, can also cause lung inflammation.
Cigarette smoking, airborne pollutants, fumes, and chemicals such as talc powder particles cause irritation, lung inflammation, and other respiratory diseases.
Talcosis is a type of pneumoconiosis—one of the types of lung disease that arise from inhaling dust particles. It is one of the four recognized types of talc-induced disease of the lungs.
The 2010 study, “Talcosis due to abundant use of cosmetic talcum powder,” made a diagnosis of talc-induced interstitial lung disease (talcosis) to a 36-yr-old, nonsmoking, Hindustan female. The suspected cause of her lung disease? Frequent use of cosmetic talcum powder. After a year of discontinued use of talc products, her complaints had decreased, and her pulmonary function had increased. However, her chest radiograph did not show an improvement, and the nodular lesions in both of her lungs remained unchanged.
The 2018 study, “Pulmonary Talcosis due to Daily Inhalation of Talc Powder,” made the same diagnosis to a 31-year-old nonsmoking woman. It reported that the natural history of pulmonary talcosis was slowly progressive, even after exposure has ceased, and that non-occupational inhalation of talc is a rare cause of talcosis and highlighted the importance of a detailed medical history with a particular focus on environmental exposures.
Mesothelioma is the cancer of mesothelial cells—the membranes covering the lungs and chest cavity (pleura), the abdominal cavity (peritoneum), and the internal organs. Exposure to asbestos causes this type of cancer.
Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer since only about 3,000 cases are diagnosed annually compared to more than 200,000 annual lung cancer diagnoses.
Asbestos particles, when inhaled, penetrate the pleura and cause irritation that leads to cancer. Occupational exposure to asbestos in insulation, construction, automotive plants, and other industries increases the risk of acquiring mesothelioma.
A 2014 study claims that only specific talcum powder brands contained asbestos fibers. As a result, they can be released into the air and inhaled during typical talcum powder application.
Some studies also associate mesothelioma with prolonged use and exposure to talc-based products contaminated with asbestos. The signs appear only after 30-40 years of asbestos exposure.
Difficulty in breathing, chest pain, abdominal pain, and fatigue are the symptoms of mesothelioma. A diagnosis requires imaging scans, blood tests, and biopsy procedures.
Most studies present mesothelioma cases among talc miners, millers, and metal casting workers using asbestos-contaminated talc. Yet, only 33 people in the 2019 study were reported to acquire mesothelioma due to the use of asbestos-contaminated talcum powder.
Lung cancer is characterized by cell formation in the tissues of the lungs, particularly in the cells that line the air passages.
The factors for increased risk for lung cancer include:
- secondhand smoke
- family history of lung cancer
- exposure to carcinogenic minerals (asbestos, arsenic, beryllium, chromium, etc.) in the workplace
- exposure to radiation (radiation therapy, radon, imaging tests)
- HIV infections
- air pollution
Even the use of e-cigarettes (vapes) increases your lung cancer risk.
Patients usually find lung cancer signs and symptoms during chest x-rays dedicated to other health problems. Lung cancer signs and symptoms do not always appear consistently. You have lung cancer with the following sometimes common signs and symptoms.
- fatigue or weakness
- loss of appetite
- a persistent cough that gets worse
- rust-colored phlegm or spit
- recurrent respiratory infections such as pneumonia
- unusual weight loss
- chest pain that gets worse when coughing, laughing, or taking deep breaths
- trouble catching your breath
- coughing up blood
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed asbestos to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans, as it causes lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, mesothelioma, and ovarian cancer.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested the Johnson and Johnson baby powder bottles in 2019 and found them positive for asbestos. From then on, the Food and Drug Administration developed recommendations to standardize the testing of talc products for asbestos.
Whether or not the products contain asbestos, they deemed the standardized irrelevant as talc and asbestos look similar in the microscopic photos. To that end, the FDA believes that asbestos and similar minerals like talc can cause “similar pathologic outcomes.” Therefore, talc, even without asbestos, can cause health problems.
Meanwhile, consumer regulatory groups publicly called for J&J to withdraw their talcum powder products from the international markets voluntarily.
In May 2018, J&J went to trial in St. Lois. The hearing lasted 6 weeks with testimonies from over 30 witnesses. The jury found J&J liable for all claims of 22 victims and granted each plaintiff $25 million (totaling $550 million) in compensatory damages. They also penalized J&J a massive $4.14 billion in punitive punishment.
J&J appealed from the 2018 trial verdict. The appellate court in June 2020 reduced J&J’s punitive damages to $1.6 billion and the compensatory damages to $500 million. The total liabilities decreased from $4.7 billion to $2.1 billion.
The lung study in 1975 on 121 employees (talc miners and millers) that involved breathing tests, chest x-rays, and answering questions found that the lungs of some talc workers had been affected due to talc inhalation while talc mining and milling, aside from smoking. Researchers found signs that the workers’ lungs were not working. There were also dust-related lung diseases from the chest x-rays. These were all consequences of talc or asbestos lung diseases.
Some studies suggest that talc miners and millers have a higher risk of respiratory diseases and lung cancer due to industrial-grade talc exposure.
However, talcum powder use, based on some studies, does not have an increased risk for lung cancer.
The 2017 study, “Occupational Exposure to Talc Increases the Risk of Lung Cancer,” aimed to evaluate how occupational inhaled talc exposure affects the risk for lung cancer. Unfortunately, the lack of quantitative data on talc exposure limited the study’s presenting a positive dose-response relationship.
Whether the exposure is talc with or without asbestos, it supported a positive link between talc exposure and lung cancer.
Multiple studies attempt to find a link between lung cancer and talcum powder. Some saw a positive association between them, while some did not find a definitive causal relationship. This, in a sense, urges you to be keen and decisive on the plethora of information on lung cancer and your health condition.
Be aware that if you or your loved one experiences wheezing, fatigue or weakness, hoarseness, loss of appetite, persistent cough that gets worse, rust-colored phlegm or spit, recurrent respiratory infections such as pneumonia, unusual weight loss, chest pain that gets worse when coughing, laughing, or taking deep breaths, trouble catching your breath, and coughing up blood, you may already have lung cancer.
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you or your loved one hasn’t had a cancer diagnosis yet.
If you or your loved one either used talcum powder frequently for a long time and have a lung cancer diagnosis, time is of the essence! You have a short statute of limitation in your state. Request a free case review today.