The National retailer, Claire’s, has pulled some of its makeup products off the shelves, due to reports of cancer-producing asbestos. The company quietly announced the recall Saturday on its Twitter page, and put out a later statement: “We have taken the precautionary measure of pulling the items in question from sale ... Once we have more information and have the results of the investigation we will take the necessary action.”

The move began when Kristi Warner purchased a makeup kit for her 6-year-old daughter from a Providence, Rhode Island shopping mall as a gift. According to Fox News, she became concerned about the safety of the product and sent it to an independent lab to test for any harmful material. The lab results came back positive for tremolite asbestos, a toxic substance that can potentially lead to malignant mesothelioma later in life, according to the National Cancer Institute.

This is not the first time that cosmetic makeup has been linked to dangerous materials. Just last July the popular retail chain catering to girls, Justice, says it has stopped selling a certain product called Just Shine Shimmer Powder because it may have contained a range of toxic heavy metals including barium and lead and asbestos as well.

Almost everyone knows that exposure to asbestos — once commonly used for building and pipe insulation — has been found to lead to certain types of cancers and tumors on internal organs and it’s odd to find this occurring again in 2017. You may recall last year a Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded Philip Depoian $18 million against talc supplier Whittaker, Clark & Daniels in a lawsuit claiming damages due to mesothelioma linked to talcum powder containing asbestos. Recently unsealed documents from a lawsuit against consumer goods and pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson revealed the company knew for decades its talc products may have contained dangerous asbestos fibers. But, why is asbestos so harmful to the human body? Let’s take a look.

Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals. It is composed of thin fibrous crystals with each visible fiber composed of millions of smaller microscopic “fibrils” that can be released by abrasion and other processes, almost like dandelions blowing their fine hair seed pods into the wind.

The mineral has been mined since 2000 B.C. but really came into its own near the end of the 19th century when manufacturers began exploiting its interesting high temperature properties.

Imagine the possibilities of a rock that could be spun into a yarn and fashioned into electrical insulation for wires or thermal gloves used for barbecues. Materials impregnated with asbestos fibers were strong and resilient. It was used for decades in the brake shoes of automobiles because they it stood up to the red hot rubbing wheel drums.

These desirable properties made asbestos very widely used, so much so that even the cigarette Kent boasted loudly about its Micronite filter containing compressed crocidolite fibers, scientific talk for “blue asbestos.”

Asbestos use continued to grow through most of the 20th century until public knowledge of the health hazards of its dust eventually forced its outlawing in mainstream construction and fireproofing within the United States. Many a house constructed during the ‘60s was shingled on its sides with asbestos-containing tiles and as kids we would have contests using the broken flat pieces left by the builders, seeing how far we could sling them down the road. You could actually see the filaments if you cracked a piece in half. Nobody thought of the inherent dangers in breathing the flailing fibers.

But the dangers of asbestos were known much earlier.

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In the early 1900s doctors began to diagnose a large number of early deaths and lung problems in asbestos-mining towns. The first such study was conducted by Dr. H. Montague Murray at the Charing Cross Hospital, London, in 1900, in which a postmortem investigation of a young man who had died from pulmonary fibrosis after having worked for 14 years in an asbestos textile factory, discovered asbestos traces in the victim’s lungs. Several years later Britain added asbestos to the list of harmful industrial substances.

The first documented death from asbestosis was Nellie Kershaw, employed by Turner Brothers Asbestos, in England, who for seven years spun raw fibers into yarn. The pathologist testified that her lungs contained visible “particles of mineral matter of various shapes, but the large majority have sharp angles” which were identified as asbestos dust and the primary cause of the fibrosis that led to her death.

Asbestos lung problems are caused not because of the chemical composition of asbestos, but because of its shape. You can think of them as very thin needles. When they are inhaled, they often puncture the cells of your lungs and remain there and are not coughed out like other pollutants.

Macrophage cells, prodded by your body’s defense mechanism, rush to the scene and try their best to remove the needle by engulfing them. Unfortunately, the asbestos fiber is much longer than the white blood cell which unfortunately gets impaled, pops and dies as well. This process repeats over and over again and the asbestos is not removed.

During the 1940s tons of asbestos was used for the war effort, especially in navy shipyards. By the 1970s, court documents proved that asbestos industry officials knew of dangers since the 1930s and had concealed them from the public.

TV commercials from law groups say there is currently over $30 billion in asbestos trust funds set up for those who are victims to asbestos-related diseases. Johns Manville created the first asbestos trust in 1988 when they set aside $2.5 billion. Way underfunded, it suspended operations twice and reduced the amount paid to less than 10 cents on every dollar of the original benefit schedule.

Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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