Talc May Be Tied to Ovarian Cancer and Serious Lung Problems, Health Canada Warns

Talc May Be Tied to Ovarian Cancer and Serious Lung Problems, Health Canada Warns

The Canadian government is warning that exposure of the female genital area to talc-containing products may be associated with ovarian cancer and that inhalation of loose talc powder may lead to potentially serious respiratory problems. 

The warnings appear in a draft screening assessment written by Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada.

Talc is a naturally occurring mineral, used in many cosmetic and self-care products. The document analyzes the available data about the ecological risk and the safety to human health of talc-containing products including baby, body, face, and foot powders; diaper and rash creams; and genital antiperspirants and deodorants.

Consistent with other international regulatory and advisory bodies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the report states that no critical health effects were identified from swallowing talc or putting it on the skin.

Many applications of talc — such as its use in paper, plastics, paint, ceramics, putties, and food, as well as many cosmetics, natural health products, and non-prescription drugs — are also not a concern to human health, Health Canada said in a press release.  

But some studies have suggested that the inhalation of loose talc powder can cause difficulty breathing, reduce lung function and cause scarring, or fibrosis, of the lungs.

“When you inhale talc, the fine talc particles will get lodged inside of the lung, and over time, there’s a cumulative effect associated with that,” David Morin, director general of Health Canada’s safe environments directorate, said in a news story by Sheryl Ubelacker.

Talc is considered a restricted ingredient in cosmetics in Canada. The Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist indicates that cosmetics with talc powder intended for infants and children should have label warnings saying “keep out of the reach of children,” and “keep powder away from child’s face to avoid inhalation that can cause breathing problems.”

There are also studies that have suggested the long-term use of talc-containing products in the female genital area is linked to ovarian cancer. Exposure of the perineal area — the area between the anus and the vulva — to talc powder has been associated with the presence of talc in the lymph nodes and ovaries of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

There are indications that talc particles in the vaginal area may migrate to the pelvis and ovarian tissue, causing irritation and inflammation.

Several case-control studies have suggested a higher risk of ovarian cancer with increasing perineal applications of talc; however, none of them has demonstrated a clear dose-response trend or a statistical significance.

How talc might cause ovarian cancer is not fully understood. One possibility is that talc particles trigger changes in immune cells that could contribute to ovarian cancer, even if these particles do not reach the ovaries.

The Canadian government is considering measures to forbid or restrict the use of talc in certain cosmetics, natural health products, and non-prescription drugs, according to Health Canada.

So far, no additional warnings have been added to talc product labels. Such measures will follow a final assessment, which will be ready only after a 60-day public consultation period of the draft screening assessment and the risk management scope.

These documents are available for public comment until Feb. 6. The public’s input, along with any new scientific evidence, will be considered by Canadian authorities in making a decision.

Several lawsuits in the U.S. and Canada have been launched against Johnson & Johnson, claiming that long-term use of its talcum powder for feminine hygiene caused ovarian cancer. The company denies its product has caused the disease and defends talc’s safety.