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What Is Talc and Why is it Dangerous?

Since the 1990s, over 850,000 tons of talc have been consumed annually in the United States. Of those 850,000 tons, 48,000 were used in direct consumer applications, including cosmetic products, pharmaceuticals and even food products. Talcum powder, associated with certain types of cancer, has been a major problem for consumers. But what is talc and why exactly is it dangerous? The answer lies in where it comes from and what it's truly made of.

What is Talc?

Talc is a fine-grained white, greenish or gray mineral that has a soapy feel. It is used in talcum and face powders, as a paper coating and as a filler for paints and plastics. The problem with talc arises from its composition and where the talc is mined.

First, talc is not a pure mineral. The common mineral composition of talc consists of about 40% pure talc, and 60% various forms of the dangerous mineral asbestos. Problems with talc arise because many of the types of asbestos that are part of the talc compound are known carcinogens.

Second, the majority of talc used in the United States was taken out of the same mines where the majority of asbestos was mined.

Why is Talc Dangerous?

Talc in its purest forms is not necessarily dangerous. However, the majority of talc used in the United States is not pure, but is contaminated with asbestos. Studies of miners working in talc mines found that those workers have excess levels of lung cancer, asbestosis, silicosis and malignant mesothelioma.

For consumers, the risks of talc are widespread. Talcum powder has been linked to lung diseases from talcosis to deadly cancers. Talc aspiration is the chief reason some pediatricians recommend against using baby powder on actual babies. As far back as the 1960s, literature from the American Academy of Pediatrics has advised against using baby powder containing talc due to aspiration risks.

The most prominent threat to consumers is the risk of ovarian cancer in women who have used talcum powders. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies use of talc-containing products as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." Talc, in products like body powder or baby powder, could cause ovarian cancer if the powder comes in direct contact with the genital area.

At least a dozen major scientific articles document the link between talc and ovarian cancer. This research found a 33 percent increased risk of ovarian cancer for women who used talcum powder.

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