What’s in a Name?

To loosely paraphrase the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, “…would not that which we call asbestos by any other name be just as deadly?” Several years ago, an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer appeared which brought to light the fact that children’s crayons contained asbestos fibers! Talc–which is often contaminated with asbestos fibers–was used up until around 2001 in order to make crayons less likely to break. Crayons manufactured by Crayola, Prang and Rose Art showed levels of contamination above trace levels in 80% of the samples tested.

These companies ultimately complied with a Consumer Product Safety Commission request to remove talc from their products. How could this have happened in the first place? The fact is that the talc used in the crayons came from mines owned by the R.T. Vanderbilt Corporation, whose representatives assured the crayon manufacturers that the talc supplied was asbestos-free. In fact, when analyzed by independent laboratories, the talc-containing crayons indeed contained insignificant amounts of tremolite, which is a common form of chrysotile asbestos. There were, however, significant amounts of magnesio-anthophyllite.

What is “magnesio-anthophyllite?” It is simply a form of deadly, spear-like amphibole asbestos not regulated by the U.S. government. By itself, anthophyllite asbestos is regulated. However, when found with magnesium, the fibers are considered “transitional” and therefore not one of the six forms of asbestos subject to federal regulation. Ronald Medford, who was an assistant executive director of hazards at the CPSC at the time, called it “semantics.” He said that that the regulated form of anthophyllite asbestos and “true anthophyllite asbestos” contain fibers that are virtually indistinguishable. Vanderbilt talc has also been used in children’s play sand.

For thirty years, the R.T. Vanderbilt Corporation fought a legal and political battle to have magnesio-anthopyllite exempted from regulation, fearing that its customers would “switch to talc substitutes.” As they are wont to do with powerful corporate interests, members of Congress ultimately gave the R.T. Vanderbilt Corporation what it wanted. In 1994, OSHA issued standards that would keep Vanderbilt talc free of regulation. Meanwhile, talc miners in upstate New York continue to suffer from mesothelioma at rates much higher than normal.