A recent investigation by Reuters has revealed that over the past half-century the FDA has responded to consumer concerns over talc-based cosmetics by deferring to the opinions of industry insiders. Since the early 1970s, the agency that is supposed to be protecting and representing the interests of the public has instead minimized the risk of asbestos-contaminated talc, refusing to issue warnings or force those “pesky regulations” upon talc producers and cosmetic manufacturers.

The FDA’s excuse is that it “lacks the authority to require manufacturers to test for asbestos…or report any results.” In response to inquiries from Reuters reporters, the FDA said it has limited power over the cosmetics industry. The agency said they cannot assure consumers of product safety once those products are on the market, nor can they force recalls when they are discovered to have safety issues. After announcing a voluntary recall of Baby Powder earlier this year, the FDA said, “We are dependent on manufacturers to take steps to ensure the safety of their products.”

In other words, the proverbial foxes are guarding the henhouse – something that U.S. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi agrees “doesn’t make a lot of sense” – particularly in light of the potentially devastating health risks.

A glaring example of this type of self-regulation was revealed by another Reuters investigation last year. That report demonstrated that Johnson & Johnson was indeed aware of asbestos contamination in its talc-based products – despite the company’s own continued insistence that their talc “has never contained asbestos – and never will.”

Phillipe Douillet, today the CEO of a Florida biotech company, went so far as to petition to the FDA in 1983 as a graduate student to make asbestos warnings mandatory for talc-based cosmetics. Instead of taking the petition seriously, the FDA obtained information from Johnson & Johnson, looking at a risk assessment from the company that was based on a letter written a decade earlier, in 1974. The letter stated that in theory an infant exposed to talc-containing a 1 percent concentration of asbestos would suffer less exposure than the legal limit for industrial workers at that time.

Three years after receiving his petition, the FDA responded to Douillet, assuring him that “even when asbestos was present, the levels were so low that no health hazard existed.”

Today, the World Health Organization has determined that there is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure.  In a statement to Reuters, Johnson & Johnson said that “at no point…would it consider talc containing 1 percent [as] appropriate for sale.” The company also considers the Reuters story to be “one-sided, false and inflammatory.”

The days of industry self-regulation may be changing. In light of increasing pressure from Congress, several expensive judgments against Johnson & Johnson, as well as a criminal investigation of the company that once boasted of being “The Most Trusted Brand in America,” the FDA may soon be forced to stop listening to industry “experts” who claim to be able to police themselves and start doing its own testing.

In a related story, evidence from a case currently being heard in Oakland, California showed that Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder did indeed contain asbestos between 1993 and 2003 when the plaintiff would have used the product. That evidence contained documents referencing attempts to remove asbestos from talc obtained from mines in Vermont. An expert witness who had tested the ore in question himself said, “It does tell us that there is asbestos in the talc. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be developing a system and spending the time to figure out how to remove it.”

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.