The baby powder scandal — is it really going to impact you?

The question of whether Johnson & Johnson (J&J) knew whether asbestos may have tainted some of its talcum powder products throughout the 1970s, 1980s and beyond is in the spotlight this week. It follows a report by Reuters alleging that the monolithic health care company ignored concerning reports and claims that they knew about associated health risks for decades.

The CEO of J&J Alex Gorsky said, "We unequivocally believe that our talc, our baby powder, does not contain asbestos," in an interview with CNBC. He also said that there were "thousands of studies, studies not only conducted by J&J, but studies conducted by independent authorities, well-respected authorities, where we work closely with regulators who are overlooking the methodology."

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From my point of view as a practicing physician, the question following this report is simple: Can I continue to recommend the routine use of talcum powder in baby products or feminine hygiene products, or can’t I?

There is another, more encompassing question as well, one concerning how corporations operate, how their operations are overseen by the companies themselves or by regulators, and how both of those are publicly perceived — but, first, the medical question.

The answer to the medical question isn’t a simple yes or no, because asbestos is a known carcinogen and we don’t really know the minimum quantity or amount of exposure needed to put you or your baby at risk. Some studies have shown a definite association between talcum powder contaminated with asbestos and a certain kind of lung cancer (mesothelioma) as well as possibly uterine and ovarian cancer.

And at least one large, retrospective study showed an increased rate of uterine cancer in women who used talcum powder without known asbestos content.

All of this research, combined with the Reuter’s report, makes me hesitant to recommend regular, heavy use of talcum powder for either babies or women. I am not alone in such caution. I would say to be aware of a possible associated risk and to be judicious in your use. At the same time, since I am anything but a fear-monger, I will gladly reassure patients who have been exposed to daily talcum powder use that the risk of developing cancer from it remains extremely small.

It may be impossible to completely remove asbestos from talcum powder because it is found in the same mines were talc is extracted from the ground. Not surprisingly, previous studies have shown an increased risk of lung problems among talc miners.

Of course, a miner’s constant close-up exposure to these pure chemicals is much more of a carcinogenic risk than you might get from applying a derived powder to a baby’s bottom.

The real take-home message here is not in terms of cancer risk, which is real but minimal. The lesson is more one of social, corporate and government responsibility — which brings us to the second question.

It’s not that our pharmaceutical companies owe us open access to every conversation they conduct or every memo they send. They are not the government. On the other hand, when we the public receive information about suppressed information or deliberate public relations campaigns to keep us steered away from certain information, then the company can expect a public reaction and an immediate loss of public confidence when the truth is found out. 

Consumers quite rightly wonder, "If they knew about this and didn’t tell us, what else might they be hiding when it comes to their more common products?" The public's distrust is sure to extend beyond, say, talcum powder, which is only 0.5 percent of J&J’s revenue, and on to all its array of products.

We need to believe that the products we put into and onto our bodies and our babies’ bodies are as safe as possible. And if there is a risk, even a very small one, we need to know about it, quickly and up-front — not by reading an investigative article that looks back in time about a carcinogenic chemical that allegedly was not treated with adequate attention over decades.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent.