andrew schneider investigates

April 13, 2009

Asbestos found in Chinese talc used in hundreds of medicines. What about our meds?

Here’s something that if it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it should at least make you wonder.

First some background.

For decades, talc, the finely ground white powder, has been used in a multitude of ways from dusting surgical gloves, condoms and balloons to a sculpting material for artists, baby and body powder and cosmetics. But a use for talc that touches more people than anything else is its function as an excipient, the inactive ingredient carrying the actual medication in thousands of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

A valued friend and mentor of mine works in Hong Kong. He’s an American public health specialist and part of a product safety team advising the Chinese on the safety of its consumer products. He sent me clippings from two Korean newspapers — the Joong Ang Daily and the Chosun.

Both publications quoted officials at the Korean Food and Drug Administration reporting several Korean pharmaceutical companies voluntarily halted the sale of drugs that contain talc, which is suspected to be contaminated with asbestos.

Another story quoted the Korean agency as reporting that more than 1,000 specific medications have been ordered off the shelves.

The American safety consultant said that as many as 400 Korean companies purchase talc used in their medication from a single company that import its talc from China.

The news reports identified the company as Duksan Pure Chemicals and said, “The banned items will range from drugs for minor ailments like cold and anemia to those for chronic diseases including high blood pressure and diabetes.”

Most large pharmaceutical firms import talc material from Japan and the United States where rules on asbestos are stricter, a news agency said and then added, “that in the European Union and the United States, manufacturers have been regulated to refine talc thoroughly to remove all asbestos since 2005 and 2006 respectively.”

I’m glad the Koreans believe that. But, according to the news reports, they also believe that that the small amount of asbestos in the medication “isn’t harmful.”  This is hard to believe because no one, to my knowledge, has ever determined a threshold dose for asbestos – the amount that will cause disease.

I shook an FDA friend out of bed last night and, after he stopped cursing, he said, “Of course, we check all medication for dangerous contaminants. Don’t we? We should.”

Some of you who may have been following my ramblings on asbestos for way too many years, might remember that after the Seattle PI broke the Libby – W.R. Grace story, we looked at other operations where workers were dying from exposure to asbestos contaminating the talc, taconite and other minerals they mined. One operation was the country’s largest talc supplier in upstate New York.

We wound up on their doorstep after we identified asbestos in the talc that the world’s largest crayon makers added for strength.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission was dragged kicking and screaming into doing something only after ABC News and school boards across the country confirmed our finding.

We gave a list of U.S. products that contained talc to the CPSC, which, according to a congressional investigator, did nothing, reportedly because the Office of Management and Budget thought any CPSC action would be an undue burden on the manufacturers.

I’ve sent a query this morning to the FDA asking the same question I asked my sleepy friend. Hopefully, I’ll get an answer from someone I can quote without endangering his or her job.

I also emailed several addresses at the Duksan chemical company asking whether they shipped the Chinese talc to companies in the U.S. and Canada.

I’ll let you know if either group replies.



  1. Did anyone from Duksan reply?

    Comment by Henry — June 2, 2009 @ 08:01 | Reply

    • I’ve tried four times since the initial story and, of course they did not respond. But thanks for asking.

      a schneider

      Comment by Andrew Schneider — June 2, 2009 @ 08:08 | Reply

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