Sputnik: Johnson & Johnson are denying that the talcum powder they produce contains carcinogenic asbestos, as claimed by Reuters, following their investigation. How convinced are you by Reuters’ findings?
Alison Reid: From what I’ve read in the newspaper – the Reuters’ findings sound credible. It makes sense that the company had their 'product’ tested over many years. Several of the terms used in the paper are commonly used in the literature – i.e. tremolite, chrysotile etc – these are different types of asbestos.
Sputnik: Can talcum powder actually give a person cancer? What amount is considered dangerous?
Alison Reid: I’m not sure if talcum powder per se can give you cancer. I think the issue is more if the talcum powder is contaminated with asbestos – that can give you cancer.
The risk of disease in humans from exposure to asbestos occurs if the asbestos becomes airborne, and subsequently inhaled into the lungs. For the common cancers related to asbestos exposure, namely malignant mesothelioma and lung cancer, there is a dose-response relationship, wherein the risk of disease increases as the amount of asbestos inhaled increases.
However, there is no known limit of exposure that is safe (i.e. below which disease is known not to occur), so even exposure to small amounts of asbestos could potentially be dangerous to human health.
Sputnik: How exactly does the exposure to asbestos result in the formation of malign tumours?
Alison Reid: The exact mechanism is not completely known, but it is hypothesised that after the asbestos is inhaled into the lungs, various cells rush to surround the invading body (the asbestos fibre), and because it is too long to be fully encased by these cells, it can scratch and cause inflammation, leading eventually to the formation of tumours.
Sputnik: What strata of the population, in terms of age and sex, are most susceptible to the health risks associated with asbestos?
Alison Reid: In the past, it has been people who worked with asbestos, who mined it or who worked in the factories where it was produced into asbestos cement, who were most vulnerable to asbestos-related diseases.
In terms of age and sex, there doesn’t appear to be any different vulnerability to the disease. Work we have done among the population who were exposed to blue asbestos at Wittenoom — men and women, adults and children — we have found no differences in their vulnerability.
The issue is the time since first exposure, in contrast to most other diseases, the risk of developing mesothelioma increases as the time since you were first exposed increases.
Sputnik: Other than talcum powder, how else could a person be exposed to asbestos?
Alison Reid: Many countries were prodigious users of asbestos, and asbestos was manufactured into more than 3000 products. In countries like Australia, much of the residential, commercial and government building stock contains some form of asbestos.
This stock is ageing and the asbestos is weathering and damaging with time as it ages. This is a common source of exposure now, but as yet we are unsure of the risks of disease associated with this possible source of exposure.
It is also possible to be exposed to naturally occurring asbestos in the environment, and there is some evidence from several countries that this has been a source of asbestos-related disease.
Sputnik: What is the best way to make oneself safe from asbestos?
Always act with caution around asbestos, but there are sensible things you can do to prevent being exposed, such as wet down the asbestos cement before cutting it – never use power tools. If you have an asbestos cement fence – then keep it well maintained and painted – to stop fibre release.
Sputnik: Australia has prohibited asbestos while a number of other nations still permit it. In your view, should asbestos be outright banned all over the world?
Alison Reid: Yes, in my view asbestos should be banned globally. All new use of asbestos should be banned, as well as its mining. Ideally, all existing asbestos (i.e. asbestos cement products) should be removed, but this is a costly exercise and can be dangerous to health if not carried out in a well controlled manner.
If not removed, then these ‘insitu asbestos products’ should be registered and kept well maintained so that no-one in the future is inadvertently exposed to those items.
Asbestos was a very useful product – that is why it has been used to extensively, but today there are relatively cheap efficient products that can be easily used to replace asbestos, and which don’t present such a big risk to human health.
Asbestos is still being used in many developing countries that do not possess the strong occupational health and safety regulations and policies of developed countries. Asbestos should not be used in those countries because of the poorer protections for workers.
Views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.