I’ve heard off and on for years that talcum powder is asbestos. Recently I was reading Coroner by Doctor Thomas Noguchi, and in the section on Janis Joplin where he talks about cutting agents used in heroin, he comes right out and says talcum powder is asbestos. If this is true, Bhopal, India, just took second place in the egregious industrial negligence contest–I’m selling my Johnson & Johnson stock before the shit hits the fan. Is talcum powder asbestos? If it is, why is it sold for use on babies when it’s being removed from brakes, schools, and workplaces at a cost of millions? –Michael G. Kramer, Los Angeles

Tom Noguchi is a sweet guy, but he’s about as reliable as a five-dollar alarm clock. Talcum powder, also known as talc, is not asbestos, although the two are mineralogically related. (They’re both silicates.) Sometimes talc is contaminated with asbestos, though, and that’s the source of all the problems.

What problems, you ask? Well, there’s this little thing about ovarian cancer. For a while it was thought talc itself caused it. A 1982 epidemiological study found that women who dusted talc on the skin near the vagina or on sanitary napkins had one and a half times the normal risk of ovarian cancer. If they dusted it on both places, they had three times the risk. The researchers surmised that the talc worked its way up the reproductive tract to the ovaries and there went about its dirty business. (Baby girls were thought to be less at risk than adults because they were exposed to talc for only a few years and their reproductive tracts were too immature to transport the talc particles.) A subsequent lab study, however, failed to find any sign that talc was actually transported to the ovaries in this way. In 1987 the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization officially absolved talc of suspicion.

The consensus today is that asbestos contaminants in talc are the real culprit. Asbestos, of course, can cause both cancer and lung disease and is dangerous even in minute amounts. In 1976 the cosmetic makers’ association called upon its members to keep their talc products asbestos-free. Johnson & Johnson says its baby powder never had it, never will, and blames the whole thing on low-class “industrial” (i.e., noncosmetic) talc. If you’d just as soon not take any chances, you’ll have to be careful; talc can be found in a variety of consumer products, including dusting powders, deodorants, chalk, textiles, pills, and soap.


I enjoy your column, but you made a mistake in suggesting that Marion Elmquist’s explanation of the origin of “out of sorts” was wacko. [In the December 1 column I scoffed at the notion that “out of sorts,” meaning irritable, derived from a printing term meaning “out of a certain character in a type font.”] Among my proudest possessions is a 1937 Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary. Under “sort,” noun, first entry, definition number 6 reads: “In printing, a type or character, commonly one belonging to a font, . . . generally in the plural and in phrases; as, out of sorts, hard on sorts, etc.” I have been told by those “in the know” that the colloquial usage derived from the annoyance that one felt when typesetting came to a halt because the typesetter was “out of sorts.” Do I get an A? –Jay Hatheway, Stoughton, Wisconsin

Yeah, for “addled.” You’ve fallen prey to the common fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc, the assumption that because two things follow in sequence the first necessarily caused the second. It’s true dictionaries juxtapose the two definitions of “out of sorts,” but they don’t say one inspired the other and indeed they would be foolish to do so. If we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary, really the only thing for this kind of work, we find that the first known reference to “sort” in the sense of a character in a type font occurs in 1668. The first known use of the expression “out of sorts,” irritable, occurs in 1621. Other 17th-century quotes indicate you could use “out of sorts” to mean you were literally out of stock, caught short, broke; and it seems reasonable that this general use of “out of sorts” was the origin of the modern expression, not printing in particular.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.