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"All of them had significant exposure to talcum powder," said lead researcher Dr. Jacqueline Moline, a professor with Northwell Health's Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y.
"It wasn't like they sprinkled it on once a month. These were people who used it daily or many times a day for many, many years. They all used the powders, and then over time they developed the cancers," Moline said.
Just last week, Johnson & Johnson recalled a shipment of baby powder after U.S. authorities found it had been contaminated with asbestos -- the first such recall in the company's history, a spokesman said.
Johnson & Johnson did not respond to a request for comment on Moline's study, but said in its recall announcement that it has rigorous testing standards in place to ensure the safety of its baby powder.
"Thousands of tests over the past 40 years repeatedly confirm that our consumer talc products do not contain asbestos," the company's statement said.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining that covers the outer surface of most internal organs, according to the American Cancer Society. It most often occurs in the lining around the lungs or the abdomen.
Asbestos is the main risk factor for mesothelioma, the cancer society says. It's fairly rare in the United States, with about 3,000 new cases diagnosed each year. But it has an average five-year relative survival rate of just 9%.
People usually inhale asbestos fibers, which are so small that 200,000 fibers fit on Abraham Lincoln's nose on a penny, Moline said. The inhaled asbestos makes its way into the lining around the lungs and abdomen, where it causes DNA damage that triggers cancer.
Although most mesotheliomas can be tracked back to asbestos exposure, there always have been a number of cases that couldn't be explained that way, Moline said.
Researchers have suspected that talcum powder could be one potential source of asbestos exposure, Moline said. Both minerals are mined from the earth, and sometimes asbestos and talc deposits overlap.
"The talc, when it's mined, can be contaminated with asbestos when both minerals are present," Moline said.
There's no way to remove asbestos from talc, so the only way to protect consumers is to test what's coming out of the mine, she said.
To examine the possible link between mesothelioma and talcum powder, Moline and her colleagues gathered information on 33 different people with the deadly cancer who'd not been exposed to asbestos in any other way.
They determined that talcum powder use was the only possible source of asbestos exposure among all 33 cases.
Further, a closer examination of six specific cases revealed the presence of asbestos in their tissues after decades-long use of talcum powder.
"They all had the same type of asbestos that is seen in talc in their tissues and in their mesothelioma," Moline said. "The type of asbestos we found is not the type typically seen in commercial applications. It's the type of asbestos you'd find in talc."
In one case, a 65-year-old woman was diagnosed with mesothelioma around her left lung after she complained of a dry cough and short-windedness. She started using talc around age 8 or 9, and regularly used it throughout her life. Researchers found asbestos fibers in the tissue of her lungs and lymph nodes.
In another case, a 44-year-old man developed chest pain after playing hockey in 2012. Doctors found mesothelioma in the lining around his lungs. The man regularly used talcum powder after showering, as well as dousing his hockey gear with talc before donning it.
It's hard for consumers to judge on their own whether a specific brand of talcum powder is safe, Moline said.
"The question is where does it come from and how rigorously has it been tested," she said. "There are some mines that don't have any asbestos, but it's unclear whether those are being used by different manufacturers.
"The most prudent thing for folks is either to use talc-free powders, which are on the market, or cornstarch-based products," Moline concluded.
The new study was published Oct. 17 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
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