Hidden danger: how asbestos can harm our health

Asbestos chrysotile fibers that cause lung disease, COPD, lung cancer, mesothelioma.

You’ve probably heard of asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral in rock and soil which is widely used in manufacturing. On one hand, the substance is a blessing, providing us with many functional items; on the other hand, it can be toxic. Long-term and persistent exposure to asbestos can cause serious health problems. It’s also linked to an increased risk of ovarian cancer, according to recent studies.

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) will discontinue making and selling its talc-based baby powder globally from next year, BBC news reported. Instead, the company will start using cornstarch in all the baby powder it sells around the world.

In 2020, J&J said it would stop selling its talc baby powder in the U.S and Canada as demand had fallen in the wake of what it called ‘misinformation’ about the product’s safety amid a number of legal cases.

The company faces tens of thousands of lawsuits from women who allege its talcum powder, which is made from a clay-based mineral, contained asbestos and caused them to develop ovarian cancer.

It denies the allegations, saying decades of scientific testing and regulatory approvals have shown its talc to be safe and asbestos-free.

J&J reiterated its position on baby powder’s safety as it announced the discontinuation of the product.

Asbestos – a versatile material

Asbestos has been broadly used in a variety of industrial, maritime, building, and automotive products due to its durability, flexibility as well as heat and chemical resistance. It also hides in homes and schools.

The material has been used in the manufacturing of roof sheets, floor tiles and brake pads, among other things. It’s also added to a variety of products to provide heat insulation and fire resistance and plays a role in the production of heat-protective clothing and home appliances including hair dryers.

Dr Somkiat Siriruttanapruk, senior expert of the Department of Diseases Control’s Bureau of Occupational and Environment Diseases, said asbestos has been used in manufacturing for more than 80 years. The use of the substance was later phased out after discovering that it has harmful health effects.

Scientific studies have shown that exposure to asbestos has been associated with several serious medical conditions including cancers. This has prompted countries to impose a ban on the use of the substance to protect public health.

Nearly 70 countries have banned the use of asbestos because of its link to life-threatening diseases.

Thailand has used chrysotile, the most common form of asbestos, for roofing materials and brake pads, according to the doctor. The country is completely reliant on the import of asbestos from other countries for manufacturing purposes. There are no asbestos mines in the country.

Removal of fiber cement containing asbestos.

Asbestos is bad for human health

Studies show that exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing non-malignant lung fibrosis; asbestosis, a lung disease that occurs from breathing in asbestos fibers; lung cancer; and mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that is closely linked to asbestos fiber exposure.

“We’ve found that about 80% of people with mesothelioma have been exposed to asbestos,” Dr Somkiat said.

Exposure to asbestos is also associated with an increased risk of ovarian cancer, he noted. Recent studies have linked asbestos exposure to a greater risk of the deadly disease, particularly amongst women who may have used asbestos-tainted talcum powder, in addition to occupational exposure.

Talc or talcum and asbestos are minerals that are found close together during the mining process. For this reason, it may be possible that talc contains traces of asbestos, he explained.

According to him, most people are exposed to asbestos through their occupations. Those who are the most likely to be exposed and affected by the substance are miners, industrial workers and construction workers.

Although asbestos exposure is most common in the workplace, it can also occur in the home through asbestos-containing products. The substance may be found in building products and appliances including roof sheets, floor tiles, cement, drainpipes and hair dryers.

Asbestos can be harmful when it’s disturbed or separated, Dr Somkiat noted.

When this happens, it may release the asbestos fibers, which turn into dust particles and become airborne. If people breath in the dust, it stays in the lung. The accumulation of dust in the organ over time can result in a serious health problems, the doctor explained.

“You should avoid using products that contain asbestos, so we can bring a halt to asbestos-related diseases. Safer alternatives to asbestos are now available,” he said, adding that when asbestos materials become damaged over time, they could be dangerous.

Dr Somkiat also advised staying away from building debris and construction sites which may potentially induce fiber dust and responsibly managing waste that contains asbestos or is contaminated with the substance as it’s hazardous waste.

“No trace of asbestos”

Last week, The Thai Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reassured consumers that no traces of asbestos have been found in any baby powder sold in Thailand.

FDA deputy secretary-general Weerachai Nolwachai said his team has recently collected 20 samples of baby powder that contain talcum powder, six of which are produced by J&J, for testing. But no traces of asbestos have been found. The tests were conducted between 2020 and 2022.

The FDA began screening for asbestos in talcum-based powder in 2009, he added.

Weerachai explained that talc is a mineral that occurs naturally. It helps absorb moisture and reduce friction to prevent rashes.

Talc is accepted as safe for use in cosmetic and personal care products throughout the world. Only talc that meets very high levels of quality and purity is permitted for use in cosmetics, he noted.

Asbestos is banned in cosmetic and personal care products, Weerachai said. Powders contaminated with asbestos are not safe for use. Manufacturers or importers of such products will face a maximum jail term of 5 years or a fine of up to 500,000 baht or both, he added.

Weerachai also advised using the talc-based powder safely. According to him, people should use it sparingly and avoid caking it on the body. They also should avoid shaking out a lot of powder at once as it can disperse into the air.

“Inhaling the powder could cause respiratory irritation. Be even more careful when using talcum baby powder on the baby. Keep the powder away from the baby’s face to avoid inhaling and ingesting it.” he said.

By Veena Thoopikrajae


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