Talc cancer concerns get their day in U.S. Congress

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(CNN)  The son of a woman who was a "true fan" of Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder, who made it a "necessary part of our hygienic routine," testified before lawmakers on Tuesday, asking for help for women like his mother, who died of ovarian cancer after regularly using talc-based powder.

"I ask that this body use whatever power in its disposal to assist in bringing about justice for my mother," Marvin Salter said.

Salter's mother, Jackie Fox, sued J&J after she was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer in 2013. She did not live to see the trial in 2016, but a jury awarded her family $72 million. The decision was later overturned.

Salter testified before the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which wanted a closer look at the science that may link talc to cancer.

Talc is found in cosmetics, powders and personal care products. It's also widely used in paints and industrial materials.

Subcommittee Chairman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, opened the hearing by citing the actions of accessories company Claire's, which recalled three of its own-brand cosmetics Monday after the Food and Drug Administration detected tremolite asbestos in them. The products contained talc, a mineral that is often found near asbestos when it is mined and that can become contaminated, according to the FDA website.

"Let's be clear: There is no question that exposure to asbestos is hazardous to human health," Krishnamoorthi said. Labeling the FDA's regulatory power "weak" and in need of reform, he added, "the FDA cannot order any manufacturers to recall these personal care or cosmetics products that potentially contain asbestos. The question is, why? Because a loophole in the statute that empowers the FDA to regulate personal care products and cosmetics does not allow the FDA to require necessary recalls."

By law, companies don't have to tell customers if there have been adverse events related to their cosmetic or personal care products. Recalls and warning labels are all done on a voluntary basis. These products do not need to be reviewed or approved by the FDA.

"To be clear, there are currently no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety," outgoing FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said in a statement last week. The agency routinely monitors the market for any public health risk, he added. It found no asbestos contamination in a 2010 survey of 34 cosmetic products that used talc.

Gottlieb said his agency will continue to work with the industry to make sure it is safe. Krishnamoorthi said at Tuesday's hearing that customers are taking action with or without the government.

"Juries across America are not waiting for Congress to act," he said.

Lawsuits are making their way through the courts on behalf of people who claim that talc-based powders are contaminated with asbestos and that powder has caused them to develop mesothelioma.

In some cases, lawyers have argued that J&J, the company that makes Baby Powder, knew that its products were contaminated with asbestos for decades and have introduced internal company documents to that effect. J&J says its products do not contain asbestos. Since the 1970s, talc used in all consumer products has been legally required to be asbestos-free.

In December, Johnson & Johnson's stock fell 10% after a Reuters report said the company knew for decades that asbestos was in its Baby Powder.

Thousands of separate but related lawsuits were filed by women who claim that they got ovarian cancer after using talc-based powder as part of their daily feminine hygiene routines. Krishnamoorthi thanked several of those women and their families who went to Tuesday's hearing.

The debate over a link between talcum powder and cancer has been growing in the scientific community. Some studies have found that women face an increased risk of ovarian cancer with the use of talc in the genital area, but others do not. Most suggest that more research is needed.

In an SEC filing in December, Johnson & Johnson said it would cooperate with "government inquiries" and subpoenas to produce documents related to the matter from the Department of Justice, the Securities Exchange Commission and Sen. Patty Murray, a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

At Tuesday's hearing, Dr. Anne McTiernan said she believes that "increasing the amount of exposure to talcum powder products in the genital area resulted in an increasing risk of developing epithelial ovarian cancer."

McTiernan is a witness in one of the multidistrict lawsuits against the makers of talcum powder and conducted a systematic review of the science involving talc and cancer.

Looking at 38 studies conducted over the past 40 years that included 14,000 women with cancer and a greater number without cancer, McTiernan found that the women had a statistically significant (22% to 31%) increased risk of developing epithelial ovarian cancer compared with women who did not use talcum powder in the genital area.

She believes that talc use may cause an inflammatory response and that the inflammation may be one pathway for cancer to develop.

"Women need to know about the risks of using talcum powder products in their genital areas," McTiernan said Tuesday. "All consumers need to be warned about the contents of these products, including asbestos and fibrous talc, so that they can make informed decisions about use."

Testifying on behalf of the nonprofit nonpartisan environmental organization Environmental Working Group, Scott Faber said that there is "always some risk that the products produced with talc contain this dangerous carcinogen."

Faber, the group's vice president of government affairs, said his organization has found 2,000 cosmetic and personal care products that contain talc. But, he added, makeup it tested contained 88 chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm in men and women.

"Cosmetics have fallen into a regulatory black hole," Faber testified.

Johnson & Johnson was not called to testify, nor were any cosmetic companies asked to speak.

"Nothing is more important to us than the safety of consumers and maintaining their trust in our products," Ernie W. Knewitz, vice president of media relations for J&J, said in a statement Tuesday. "We have long supported legislation to modernize the U.S. FDA's regulatory authority over cosmetics and personal care products, and believe this reform is essential to enabling the agency to increase their ability to protect the public. We are committed to continuing to work with Congress and the FDA to advance meaningful change.

"As it pertains to today's hearing, the testimony was biased with a majority of witnesses being connected to litigation against our company. As a result, decades of studies concluding that Johnson's Baby Powder is free of asbestos and safe to use were not discussed, and the subcommittee did not hear the preponderance of evidence that supports the safety of our product," he wrote.

"For decades, global independent laboratories and health authorities have tested Johnson's Baby Powder and have never found asbestos. In 2010, the U.S. FDA surveyed a range of cosmetic products, including Johnson's Baby Powder and the source talc used in the product, and confirmed that it did not contain asbestos. In a March 5, 2019 statement, the FDA reaffirmed these findings stating the results 'found no traces of asbestos contamination using the most sensitive techniques available.' "

This story was first published on CNN.com "Talc cancer concerns get their day in Congress"