FDA Examines Asbestos Testing at Public Hearing

February 5, 2020

For the first time in 50 years, the government agency is examining asbestos testing for talc powders and cosmetics after traces of the known carcinogen were found in a number of such products.

At a hearing on February 4, 2020, the FDA examined asbestos testing for talc powders and cosmetics for the first time in 50 years, after traces of the known carcinogen were found in several such products.

The hearing focused on testing standards recommended by a panel of government experts. Published last month, the recommendations accounted for positions held by public health authorities and experts for plaintiffs who alleged in lawsuits that contaminated talc products were the cause of their cancers. 

Notably, one of the more significant recommendations made by the panel was that mineral products found in talc products small enough to be drawn into the lungs, including those that would not technically be categorized as asbestos, should be counted as potentially harmful.

At the hearing, a government toxicologist said a wide range of spear-shaped mineral particles can prompt the development of cancer and should be included in any new testing regime.

Christopher P. Weis, a toxicology liaison at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said research has indicated that conventional testing methods have failed to detect the full range of elongated mineral particles (EMPs). 

“Short EMPs are not conventionally counted or included in lab reports,” Weis said at the hearing. “As a toxicologist, this is unacceptable.”

However, Mark Pollak, senior executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Personal Care Products Council, a cosmetics trade group which represents about 600 companies, said the recommendation for counting more mineral particles as possibly harmful is not supported by science. 

“Counting all [EMPs] would provide misleading reports, suggesting the presence of asbestos when none exists,” Pollak said at the hearing. “The key to effective testing is identification of asbestos, not harmless minerals.” 

Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, encouraged the FDA to endorse the more onerous testing methods and suggested that the agency add a warning label to talc products so consumers can be aware that they might contain asbestos.

“It’s time to end the honor system which has failed consumers for so long,” Faber said at the hearing. “Let’s not wait another 50 years to finally protect consumers.” 

Since the 1970s, the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have limited exposure to asbestos on the job and in the air in order to reduce cancers. Nevertheless, a report published by Reuters in December 2018 indicated that, during the same period, the FDA minimized health concerns, including possible asbestos contamination, in talc powders and cosmetics and regularly deferred manufacturers. 

Linda M. Katz, MD, MPH, director of the FDA’s office of cosmetics and colors, said that the panel of government experts from the FDA, as well as other agencies, will continue to study these issues and plans to eventually publish a white paper. A timetable has not been announced by the FDA for deciding whether to pursue new rules on testing. 

References:

1. US government experts, industry spar over asbestos testing in talc [news release]. Silver Spring, Maryland. Published February 4, 2020. reuters.com/article/us-health-fda-talc/fda-to-hold-public-meeting-on-testing-for-asbestos-in-talc-idUSKBN1ZY0IX. Accessed February 5, 2020.

2. Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder [news release]. Los Angeles, California. Published December 14, 2018. reuters.com/investigates/special-report/johnsonandjohnson-cancer/. Accessed February 5, 2020.