Asbestos in cosmetics: ‘a tragic case study’

U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-11th) speaks to members of the media earlier this year. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

From The Bulletin, the Mercury’s blog, where we post quick hits on the news of the day, odds and ends and commentary.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-11th, on Tuesday called the presence of asbestos in cosmetic products an important lesson in the value of government regulation.

Connolly, a member of the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, spoke on Capitol Hill at a hearing focused on allegations that asbestos in products like baby powder and makeup poses a cancer risk to consumers.

“I think this is a tragic case study that gives the lie to those who want to propound that the federal government’s hobnailed boot is on the neck of business and if they’d only let up, everything would be fine. When we mindlessly deregulate or don’t regulate to protect the public, this is what can happen,” Connolly said.

The hearing came after the Food and Drug Administration earlier this month confirmed the presence of the carcinogen in makeup sold by the girls’ retail stores Claire’s and Justice. The FDA issued a statement noting its limited regulatory power over such products.

“Right now, when it comes to cosmetics, companies and individuals who market these products in the U.S. hold the responsibility for the safety and labeling of their products,” the agency said in its statement.

“This means that ultimately a cosmetic manufacturer can decide if they’d like to test their product for safety and register it with the FDA. To be clear, there are currently no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety.”

Witnesses at the hearing Tuesday also pointed to research and lawsuits suggesting that talc-based powder can contain asbestos and can cause cancer. Last month, the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission issued subpoenas in an investigation of asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral often found near talc, an ingredient in many cosmetic products, according to the FDA.

Reuters reported in December that Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that its powder was sometimes tainted with asbestos but that the company kept the information from regulators and the public.

Witnesses at the hearing Tuesday called for legislation that would increase the FDA’s regulatory power and improve consumer awareness of the dangers posed by chemicals in cosmetics.

Connolly, too, wants to see Congress address the issue.

“I hope this hearing will lead to some legislative direction that empowers FDA, especially in the cosmetic field,” he said.

Johnson & Johnson issued a statement after the hearing saying “the testimony was biased with a majority of witnesses being connected to litigation against our company.

“As a result, decades of studies concluding that Johnson’s Baby Powder is free of asbestos and safe to use were not discussed, and the subcommittee did not hear the preponderance of evidence that supports the safety of our product.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said she wants to list certain cosmetic products on her congressional website.

“I want to see if my colleagues won’t let me do that, because I want to put it on my website and provide this information to these young girls and try to increase education because I can’t wait for this legislation to pass for people to stop dying,” she said.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., said at the hearing, “I don’t think common sense would dictate that when people apply things to their skin, they would ever expect cancer.”