Talc, a common ingredient in baby powder, diaper cream and bath bombs, may cause ovarian cancer and breathing problems and should be considered toxic, according to Health Canada.
The department published a draft assessment of talc on Wednesday that proposes adding it to the government’s list of toxic substances that can pose risks to human health. But a final safety assessment has to be published before Health Canada can impose warning labels, a ban or other actions to protect people from the potential health effects.
Talc is a naturally occurring mineral used in a wide variety of products, including electronics, sporting equipment and cosmetics. In recent years, concerns over the health risks of talc have been growing, particularly after high-profile court cases in the United States launched by women who say their ovarian cancer was caused by daily use of talcum powder.
According to Health Canada, only certain products containing talc pose a potential health risk: loose powders, such as baby powder, body or foot powder, can lead to coughing, breathing problems and decreased lung function. And talc-containing products applied to the genital area may be linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer.
The link between talc and ovarian cancer is not definitive. Some studies show that women who have used talc products in their genital area for years may have a slightly higher chance of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But there is no proof of a cause-and-effect relationship, said Joanne Kotsopoulos, Canada Research Chair in hereditary breast and ovarian cancer prevention at Toronto’s Women’s College Research Institute.
She said researchers hypothesize that talc, when applied to a woman’s perineum, may enter the reproductive tract and inflame the ovaries, which could lead to a higher cancer risk.
While the risks are likely small, women should avoid applying products containing talc to their genital area, Dr. Kotsopoulos said.
Steven Narod, director of the familial breast cancer research unit at Women’s College Research Institute, said he thinks the risks of talc-containing products are being blown out of proportion and unnecessarily alarming women.
“In my opinion, we’re not going to make any impact on the risk of ovarian cancer in the future by reducing exposure to talc,” Dr. Narod said.
Anita Koushik, a researcher at the environmental epidemiology and population health research group at the Centre de recherche du CHUM in Montreal, echoed the advice to avoid using talc, particularly near the genital area, but said there’s no reason for women who have used it to panic.
“I think it has scared a lot of people,” she said. “I don’t know if women who have been using talc should live in fear.”
Muhannad Malas, toxics program manager at Environmental Defence, an advocacy group, said it’s clear that talc comes with some degree of risk and said he’s concerned it will be years before Health Canada takes any action to warn Canadians or restrict the use of talc in consumer goods.
“There isn’t a timeline,” Mr. Malas said. “In many cases, we’ve seen delays that have lasted many years.”
In a statement, Cosmetics Alliance Canada, which represents the personal-care industry, said other agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have said there’s insufficient evidence of the link between talc and cancer and “have not taken any regulatory action.” The statement said it’s important to wait for Health Canada’s final safety assessment “before drawing any conclusions on the safe use of this or any substance."