Dora the Explorer™ coloring kits and Disney® crayons, among other products, have recently tested positive for trace amounts of asbestos, a lethal mineral fiber. The use of asbestos has been heavily regulated by the U.S. government since the 1970s, but new reports found traces of asbestos in numerous children’s toys. Many people are rightfully outraged over a regulatory process allegedly failing to ensure 100% safety for these types of products.
The consumer watchdog group FairWarning has reported on tests done by the non-profit Environmental Working Group. Researchers found stray fibers of asbestos in products made specifically with talc, a soft, natural mineral used in things like baby powder, makeup, crayons, and even food.
Historically, asbestos dangers have been mainly tied to risks in the workplace and military service. Now, consumers and health advocates are worrying about a much broader type of exposure that is universal and directly affects children.
Talc and Asbestos: A Dangerous Mixture
What a lot of people don’t know is that talc and asbestos, both of which are naturally occurring compounds, are found together in nature. It’s relatively hard to “scrub” talc products of all asbestos. For many years, however, U.S. manufacturers have assured consumers that they perform precise tests to make sure that no asbestos contaminate the mined talc. “Few ingredients have demonstrated the same performance, mildness and safety profile as cosmetic talc, which has been used for over 100 years by millions of people around the world,” reads a Johnson & Johnson web response on a company website titled Safety and Care Commitment. “Our talc is carefully selected, processed and tested to ensure that it is asbestos free, as confirmed by regular testing conducted since the 1970s.”
In fact, there is some evidence that regulators’ efforts to conduct tests have not been thoroughly verifiable. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did asbestos testing of talc products in 2009 and 2010 after reports of contaminated supply chains. Still, FairWarning contends that only four of nine surveyed talc providers offered samples.
In addition, concerns about asbestos in talc have already generated lawsuits, and even led to $12.4 Million in settlements against Colgate/Palmolive earlier this year, in connection to a possibly contaminated cosmetic product. The massive size of these court awards demonstrates the outrage over the idea that companies may be promoting their talc products as abundantly safe, even as testing fails to quell existing safety hazards. Where are the details on how the talc is tested to be 100% free of asbestos?
Asbestos: Why It’s a Big Problem
A large part of what’s concerning consumers and safety officials is the way that products are regulated in the U.S. Rather than a rigorous process for companies to prove that their products are safe, there is a burden on the FDA to prove otherwise. This makes it difficult to judge and evaluate risks. Not every batch of products can be checked, and there’s the real possibility that tainted products are getting to store shelves.
Science has shown, time after time, that there is “no safe level” of asbestos exposure. Exposure to a single stray fiber can lead to lung cancer and a deadly form of cancer known as mesothelioma. That fact has led to the wide-ranging crackdowns on asbestos use in insulation, boiler components and coverings, and other products several decades ago. But in spite of all of these known risks, asbestos is still not banned in the U.S.
Safety advocates are disappointed that asbestos is still a concern in consumer products. After all, asbestos has been regulated for decades. How can we still not be sure that consumer products are asbestos-free? There’s still doubt as to whether or not companies have removed enough of this dangerous substance from supply chains to meet regulations – and that doubt is even more severe when dealing in talc products. Cancer.org states:
“When talking about whether or not talcum powder is linked to cancer, it is important to distinguish between talc that contains asbestos and talc that is asbestos-free. Talc that has asbestos is generally accepted as being able to cause cancer if it is inhaled. This type of talc is not used in modern consumer products. The evidence about asbestos-free talc, which is still widely used, is less clear.”
The practical fear is this: if asbestos can infiltrate a whole supply chain, it can be nearly anywhere. Today’s struggle with tainted talc is not like the enormous asbestos scare of the 1970s, when the government started regulating many products more heavily, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) set up more stringent workplace monitoring procedures. These products, bought over the counter, cannot be monitored as easily at the point of release.
Companies can, and must, do better to mine talc in safe ways. They must not only “avoid” asbestos contamination, but test thoroughly. Items like coloring kits and crayons should not have to be viewed with caution: they should be 100% safe for kids. Until they are, we need to keep fighting for more corporate accountability, more transparency in supply chain, and for a ban on asbestos use in the U.S.