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Guest Columnists

NTP Executive Committee to Vote on Talc in The Report on Carcinogens Program

Dry Powder—Becoming a Sticky Subject

Sydney Smith
CRE Website Reporter

June 4, 2001

Review Groups 1 and 2 have placed their votes. Based on one epidemiological study and another submitted on rats and mice, both RG1 and RG2 voted 6-1 and 7-1, consecutively, to place talc cosmetic powder on the Reasonably Anticipated Known Carcinogen List.

Then, baby powder sprinkled down to the third group, the Report on Carcinogens (ROC) Sub-Committee, and landed with a thud. Wind from public feedback blew the votes in the opposite direction.

Talc industries and producers, mineralogists and academic scholars labeled the prior studies on the powder problematic, weak and biased. Even a European Talc Producer attended, demonstrating that determinations on this dusty matter render worldwide impact.

Hence, The ROC Sub-Committee voted 8-2 to keep talc, which consists of any product from baby powder, athlete's foot to under-arm deodorant, off the Reasonably Anticipated Known Carcinogen List in the up-coming ROC.

So, after two groups' "yeas" to put it on the list and one group's "nay" to keep if off, talc powder goes up for review by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Executive Committee's activities.

Dr. Chris Portier, Associate Director of the NTP, says the discrepancy in ballots is "not unusual." When they meet every two years to review materials for the ROC, there's usually a couple substances "that are difficult to evaluate," he says. Portier indicates baby powder will get no special treatment.

"Meetings always differ depending on the subject, chairman and agency heads," Portier says. But with the NTP Executive Committee functioning from a closed convocation, little is known how substances are reviewed for decision. Nonetheless, talc powder proved to be the magic dust for invoking some of these operations into the open. Portier describes some of the Executive Committee's activities.

"There's a brief presentation," he explains. The person giving the presentation will nearly always vary. Then "there's an open discussion as long as needed." Only Committee Members are authorized to make a motion to vote and the public has no way of ascertaining how and with whom the votes fall.

Like powder through an hourglass, it won't take long for the Committee to decide if talc may be harmful to the public. Portier states "Generally, these meetings are no longer than three hours and we might do 8-10 chemicals at one executive meeting."

However, members should take much longer preparing for the Executive Committee. "We're talking about Agency Heads," says Portier. "They have entire staffs to prepare them for the meeting. They get all of the background material in advance."

Portier says this consists of prior votes and meeting minutes from RG1, RG2 and the ROC Sub-Committee. They also receive evidence gathered from scientific studies and, in the case of talc powder, a lot of public comment.

"Their staff will review what has been done with the chemical." However, Portier adds that, while he knows how he reviews the studies, he also recognizes he cannot speak for every member. He says he is "prepared" to put talc on the table and all of the information has been forwarded to the Executive Committee Members, he stresses. "Everything."

Despite international clamor and split-votes over talc, Portier thrusts the grit of NTP decision-making into the lab. He says science is the primary basis behind the vote.

A spokesman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) agrees. Although many Federal Agencies, like NIOSH, are shifting Executive Committee Members, a representative states that "In terms of how NIOSH would look at the information, we - ourselves - would look at the weight of the scientific evidence."

The Occupational Safety and Health Dept. of Labor (OSHA) takes a more comprehensive stand. "The decisions made for the agency are based on both the recommendations of all the board groups, as well as, the original evidence on which those groups made their decision." OSHA will evaluate policy and buzz from the public equally with science. All these factors "would come into play," an agency spokesperson says.

Many more Federal Agency Executive Committee Members were asked to comment. Dr. Bernard Schwetz, Acting Commissioner for the FDA, holds the new Chairperson spot on the Committee. His Public Affairs Department declined the CRE interview.

Dr. Portier says, however, that all of the Committee Members are "Ph.D.-level Scientists." A spokeswoman for the EPA stated that "it's in everyone's best interest to make sure of the science, so there's no doubt in anyone's mind" before they vote.

Sydney Smith was previously a reporter with Channel 11 News (Toledo, Ohio)