Johnson's baby powder remains stocked at a supermarket shelf in Alhambra, California. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: It is the longest standing lethal marketing con of the century. For years we read disturbing reports discouraging use of talcum powder. However, as multinationals glibly lied, for generations, new mothers reached out for the harmless looking soft white talcum powder to endow their babies with its idyllic fragrance. The multinational continued to manipulate its consumers with mind numbing ad blitz, claiming to produce ‘safe and clean’ products’ while actually exposing their consumers to one of the worst known carcinogens.

Now as Johnson & Johnson stand exposed to the fact that they deliberately concealed the results of reports that indicated high doses of asbestos in their talcum powder, consumers and health care providers respond to this revelation with outrage and shock.

Dr Sonia Wilson, Dermatologist, RAK Hospital

“People use talcum for preventing skin from chafing or keeping skin dry. However, as a dermatologist I can say there is no real merit in use of talc. I often advise my patients that they do not need to use talcum powder at all. It is more of a cultural habit and people use it for its good fragrance rather than any intrinsic benefit. Pure talc is a mineral that when mined often gets contaminated with asbestos powder,” said Dr Wilson

The World Health Organisation has identified asbestos as a carcinogen (cancer causing agent). It is known to mutate the lining that covers some of our vital organs such as the lungs and the ovaries and can cause mesothelioma or cancer of the tissues. Fine spores of asbestos that fly in the air as the powder is dusted get lodged in the respiratory tract and lungs, triggering asthma. “However, there are no conclusive studies to confirm these so far,” she added.

However, as a dermatologist I can say there is no real merit in use of talc. I often advise my patients that they do not need to use talcum powder at all.

- Dr Sonia Wilson, Dermatologist, RAK Hospital

Dr Wilson also pointed out that the contamination of talc with asbestos is very common and causes several skin and health complications which she has seen in her patients. “We have cases of talc induced patients come to me with contact dermatitis, eczema and asthma and often I tell them to stop using talc which mitigates all these symptoms.”

For parents who use talcum powder to prevent diaper rash in their kids advised Dr Wilson. ”It is better to make them wear breathable, natural fibre diapers made of cotton that are changed frequently. If an infant does have diaper rash then it is better to use a drying agent like zinc oxide under prescription for a limited time rather than dusting the baby with talc.”

Dr Yusr Jaffir, Consultant in Family Medicine at the Medeor 24X7 International Hospital, Al Ain, feels finding a particular company guilty has only opened the controversy wider where talcum powder is being used in a large variety of products. “Asbestos is harmful but it all depends of the dose. Usually it was found to have caused lung cancer in miners and ship building industry workers who were exposed to large doses.”

The asbestos in talcum powder is so fine that it accumulates over a period of time in our lungs, causing asthma, breathing difficulty and cancer.

- Dr Yusr Jaffir, Medeor 24X7 International Hospital, Al Ain

However, Dr Jaffir cautions that mothers who have used the talcum powder for their growing children might have exposed them to a long and sustained harm. “The asbestos in talcum powder is so fine that it accumulates over a period of time in our lungs, causing asthma, breathing difficulty and cancer. We have been hearing disturbing reports about talc from 1963 right up to 2000. I have always advised my patients to stop using talc especially when new mothers want to avert diaper rash in their babies. However we need to look closely at so many other products that still use talc — eye mascara, foundation in crayons for kids, and in hospital gloves. People are becoming aware of the dangers and need to completely prohibit the use of talc which is so unnecessary.”

Tatiana Antonelli, Dubai-based environmentalist and founder and Managing Director of Goum Book for sustainable eco development. “It is frightening to think that a company that had products used by our grandmothers has been found guilty of exposing women and children to carcinogens.

They have broken our trust. It brings to our mind the question of who is protecting the rights of consumers and who can we really trust in our world today? For years women have raised their voice about talc being harmful and causing cancers. But it is only now that their voices were heard. Even today, the Johnson and Johnson website denies knowledge of the use of asbestos whereas it is very clear they deliberately withheld this information from the consumers. It just brings every other product, marketed by multinationals into sharp perspective.”

It is frightening to think that a company that had products used by our grandmothers has been found guilty of exposing women and children to carcinogens.

- Tatiana Antonelli, Dubai-based environmentalist

Tracey Thompson, Dubai-based, PR consultant and mother of one daughter

I used this product on my own daughter when she was a small baby and my mum used it on my three brothers and me. It’s extremely worrying to think about...

- Tracey Thompson, Dubai-based, PR consultant

“I used this product on my own daughter when she was a small baby and my mum used it on my three brothers and me. It’s extremely worrying to think about what the potential ramifications might be. We put a huge amount of trust in leading brands and are even willing to pay a premium because of it. So, when this trust is seen to be misplaced, it’s extremely worrying and makes you wonder who you really can trust.”