Talcum powder. Adobestock
World Health Organization suspects talc may cause cancer

World Health Organization suspects talc may cause cancer

The scientific evidence is limited, but animal experiments have concluded that there is a "certainty" about adverse health effects

Antonio Paniagua


Tuesday, 9 July 2024

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The World Health Organization (WHO) considers talc to be "probably carcinogenic". The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) believes that the mineral, used in cosmetics, may have the potential to have carcinogenic effects in the population. The agency places talc at level 2A, the second highest level on its hazard identification scale. This placement means that, although the accumulated evidence is still small, the powders are thought to cause tumours, especially in the ovaries. After laboratory experiments on animals, it is concluded that there is sufficient certainty, as well as "strong mechanistic evidence", to support the hypothesis of adverse health effects.

For the WHO agency, talc reveals "key carcinogenic characteristics in human cells and experimental systems". The IARC points to acrylonitrile, a compound used in the textile and consumer plastics industry, as a cause of tumours. For the experts, exposure to this product during extraction or processing is dangerous. But not only that. If the general population comes into contact with this substance through the use of cosmetics or body powders containing this mineral, such as make-up or deodorants, they may be at risk.

According to a study carried out by agency experts, which will be published in the journal 'The Lancet Oncology' next year, research points to an increase in cases of ovarian cancer when talcum powder is used in the perineal region (pubis and anus). Another risk, although less studied, is present in foods, medicines and other products. The IARC makes no secret of its concern about the contamination of talc with asbestos, a substance similar to asbestos and considered a dangerous carcinogen.

Shift work

Although the scientific evidence is limited, the degree of certainty about its carcinogenic potential is the same as for the effects of red meat consumption or the risk of doing shift work. Group 2A listing does not clarify the degree of risk of developing tumours from a given exposure.

Researchers have also noted an increased rate of ovarian cancer in research looking at exposure of women working in the pulp and paper industry.

In experiments on rats, talc treatment caused an increased incidence of cancer in the adrenal glands and lung of female rats, while in males a combination of benign and malignant tumours was reported, also in the adrenal medulla.

With regard to evidence of common mechanisms of cancer-causing compounds, the IARC scientists argue that talc exhibits key characteristics of carcinogens, including "induction of chronic inflammation and alteration of cell proliferation, cell death or nutrient supply".

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