"Nondetected": The Politics of Measurement of Asbestos in Talc, 1971–1976

David Rosner, PhD, MPH; Gerald Markowitz, PhD; Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD, MPH

Disclosures

Am J Public Health. 2019;109(7):969-974. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

The recent lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson have raised the issue of what and when talcum powder manufacturers knew about the presence of asbestos in their products and what they did or did not do to protect the public. Low-level exposure to asbestos in talc is said to result in either mesothelioma or ovarian cancer. Johnson & Johnson has claimed that there was "no detectable asbestos" in their products and that any possible incidental presence was too small to act as a carcinogen. But what exactly does "nondetected" mean? Here, we examine the historical development of the argument that asbestos in talcum powder was "nondetected." We use a unique set of historical documents from the early 1970s, when low-level pollution of talc with asbestos consumed the cosmetics industry. We trace the debate over the Food and Drug Administration's efforts to guarantee that talc was up to 99.99% free of chrysotile and 99.9% free of amphibole asbestos. Cosmetic talc powder manufacturers, through their trade association, pressed for a less stringent methodology and adopted the term "nondetected" rather than "asbestos-free" as a term of art.

Introduction

The recent lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, and particularly the $4.8 billion verdict against the company, have raised the issue of what and when talcum powder manufacturers knew about the presence of asbestos in their products and what they did or did not do to protect the public.[1]

Since the mid-1960s, asbestos, even at low levels, has been recognized as a cause of lung cancer and mesothelioma. Since the early 1970s, the cosmetics industry, as represented by the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA), has claimed that there was either no asbestos or that any residual asbestos in their products was "nondetected." But what exactly does "nondetected" mean? Here, we examine the historical development of the argument that asbestos in talcum powder was nondetectable.

We use a unique set of historical documents from the early 1970s,[2] when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised concerns over findings of low level pollution of talc with asbestos. We trace the debate over the FDA's efforts to guarantee that talc was up to 99.99% free of chrysotile and 99.9% free of amphibole asbestos. Talc powder companies' counterproposals were less stringent; they proposed methodologies that were capable of detecting asbestos up to 99.5%. The difference in these methodologies meant that potentially billions of asbestos fibers could be released into the air when babies were powdered or adults powdered themselves.

Cosmetic talc powder manufacturers pressed for the less stringent methodology and adopted the term "nondetected" asbestos, rather than "asbestos-free" as a term of art. The CTFA, the industry trade association, which represented companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Colgate, Pfizer, Mennen, Avon, and other manufacturers of cosmetic talc products, spearheaded the efforts to define how to measure asbestos in talc.

These contests over methodology were enormously important. They should be seen as part of parallel battles over operationalization of regulatory terms. Since 1958, the FDA had been embroiled in controversy over proper interpretation of the so-called "Delaney clause," which banned approval of food additives that were carcinogenic. But how exactly to "define zero," as historian Sarah Vogel puts it, was far from self-evident and resulted in decades of debates over the clause's interpretation.[3] When the controversy over talc began, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was arguing that only an asbestos exposure approaching zero could ensure workers' protection against cancers.[4] If asbestos could cause cancer among workers even at minimal levels of exposure, then consumer advocates and federal officials worried that everyday users of products with asbestos were at risk, too. In earlier articles, we have traced how two other trade associations representing manufacturers of asbestos products reacted to the changing political, scientific, and regulatory efforts to control asbestos exposure.[5] Here, we look at a third, the CTFA, representing an industry whose market was the broad public: men and women, mothers and fathers, and even babies.

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