Jacqueline Salter Fox didn’t feel ready to start the day until she put on Johnson’s Baby Powder, and she taught her son, Marvin, to use it, too. After every bath.
It wasn’t until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013 that Fox learned her 30 years of reliance on the product might have been responsible for the disease, Marvin Salter told members of the House Oversight Committee’s panel on economic and consumer policy.
“Baby powder was always in our bathroom cabinets or bedroom dressers,” he recalled during a hearing on the risks of asbestos contamination in talc, a common ingredient in bath powders. “It was wherever we were getting dressed. We never realized that what we were using could possibly be harmful.”
While undergoing treatment, Fox filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson, the New Brunswick, N.J.-based health products giant, and when she died before the case went to trial, Salter saw it to completion with a jury verdict in his mother’s favor. Johnson & Johnson is still selling the product, Salter pointed out on March 12, urging Congress to act and suggesting that the company could at least voluntarily add a warning label.
Less than a week later, Rep. Debbie Dingell introduced a bill that would take the choice out of such labels, requiring makers of cosmetics marketed to children to demonstrate to the Food and Drug Administration that they’re free of asbestos or include a written warning alerting parents to the potential risk.
The bill comes amid an investigation by the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission into claims that Johnson & Johnson concealed asbestos contamination in its popular baby powder for decades as well as a recall by the retailer Claire’s of possibly tainted makeup marketed to teenage girls.
“Parents should have the peace of mind in knowing that the cosmetics their children use are safe,” said Dingell, D-Mich. “No child should be exposed to asbestos through the use of common, everyday products.”
Americans, who use 10 cosmetic or personal care products a day, are typically shocked to find out that they’re among the least-regulated items on the market, added Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a co-sponsor. Because of a loophole in existing law, the FDA lacks the authority to force the makers of such products to recall them, lawmakers and safety advocates said.
The applicable provisions of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that governs the agency’s oversight of cosmetics haven’t been updated since it was enacted in 1938, FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb said earlier this month. Cosmetics don’t have to obtain FDA approval before sale, largely because such items are not believed to pose the same risks as medical products.
Claire’s said it believes the items it’s recalling — Claire’s Eye Shadows, Claire’s Compact Powder, and Claire’s Contour Palette sold between October 2016 and March 2019 — are safe but is acting out of “an abundance of caution.” The company, which is offering buyers a full refund. switched to talc-free production for all its makeup during the past year.
Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, said in February that it’s cooperating with the inquiries about its talc products by the Justice Department and the SEC as well as information requests from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee.
The company maintains its powder “is safe and asbestos free” and that studies of 100,000 people have shown talc doesn’t cause cancer or asbestos-related disease. Talc, a mineral consisting mainly of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen, sometimes contains asbestos — linked to mesothelioma as well as ovarian and other cancers — in its natural form, according to the American Cancer Society.
Since the 1970s, manufacturers have routinely tested mined talc to ensure it’s asbestos-free before including it in cosmetics.
Americans “use these products trusting they’re safe and will not harm themselves or their families,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., the chairman of the economic policy subcommittee, who described his panel’s hearing as a first step in protecting consumers against carcinogens.
“Juries across America are not waiting for Congress to act,” he noted. “Many of those juries have assessed punitive damages against manufacturers for failing to warn consumers of talcum powder’s ovarian cancer risks.”