Editor’s Note: It has come to our attention that Jeff Zamek, author of “Talc and Asbestos: What we Know and What We Don’t”, published in our February 2008 issue, was a paid consultant to R.T. Vanderbilt Co., Inc., during the litigation referred to in the article. We intended to present a balanced report about potential health effects of New York talc and we believe we accomplished that. However, the writer’s relationship with the company, which has mined New York talc, should have been disclosed with the article. We regret that omission. As always, we feel that it is in our readers’ best interests to hear all possible perspectives on any topic involving health and safety. To that end, we present here a response to the talc article by a paid expert witness who testified on the opposite side of the lawsuit mentioned in the story.
Please send responses and feedback to shall@ceramicsmonthly.org.
I’m an industrial hygienist, former potter, and one of the experts who testified for the plaintiff in the 2006 trial Jeff Zamek mentioned in his article on talc in the February 2008 issue of Ceramics Monthly. In this case, a potter died of mesothelioma at age 53. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer except in people exposed to asbestos. The potter was briefly exposed to an asbestos-containing joint compound during renovation of one of his studios, but he used Vanderbilt’s NYTAL 100HR for seven years when he was a young potter (mesothelioma has a 20 to 40 year latency period). The jury concluded that NYTAL 100HR causes mesothelioma and awarded the widow $3.35M in compensatory damages plus an undisclosed amount of punitive damages.

I wish every potter could have been at that trial to feel the sadness of a life cut short and to listen to the arguments about the many different studies of talc that were entered into evidence. I relied on over 20 studies for my testimony. Four studies said the fibers in the talc are not really asbestos and do not cause cancer in R.T. Vanderbilt workers. However, Plaintiff’s Attorney Moshe Maimon demonstrated to the jury that all four of these studies were financially supported by R.T. Vanderbilt.

The other studies essentially all concluded the talc contains asbestos and/or harmed the workers. But if we only used three of these studies, we still could make a case against R.T. Vanderbilt. These three were done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) which has no financial axe to grind. The first study in 1967 found lung cancer in Vanderbilt workers at 4 times the expected rate (1)*. The second was a 1980 NIOSH Technical Report which also found a higher risk of lung cancer and other asbestos effects among the talc workers and noted a case of mesothelioma (2)*. The NIOSH update and review in 1990 concluded the same (3)*.

As for mesothelioma, smoking does not induce this cancer and its occurrence is rare-in the range of one in a million-except in people exposed to asbestos. Until trial, R.T. Vanderbilt only acknowledged 8 cases among their workers, which is already significant in a worker population of about 800. But a 2002 study (4)* identified 5 more cases and attorney Maimon had these five added by stipulation bringing the total to 13 cases of mesothelioma in R.T. Vanderbilt workers.

So before they chose Zamek to write a talc article, CM should have looked at the facts and read Zamek’s Safety in the Ceramic Studio (2002). In his talc chapter, Zamek says “the animal and human medical studies do not reveal any relationship between R.T. Vanderbilt talc and cancer.” CM should have seen that the man hasn’t read the studies and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Worse, in his CM article, Zamek deliberately misleads readers into thinking he is fairly presenting both sides of the controversy. For R.T. Vanderbilt’s side, Zamek quotes one of their defense experts who says the fibers are not asbestos and the workers are not “at risk for developing asbestos-related pneumoconiosis.” This is doubly misleading because “asbestos-related pneumoconiosis” is a fancy term for “asbestosis.” This is not cancer. It is a lung-scarring disease requiring very high exposures and is not at issue in this case. Lung cancer and mesothelioma are the issues and they occur with far less exposure.

Then Zamek claims to present the opposing view with the opinion of Dr. Woodhall Stopford from Duke University. Dr. Stopford has just recently stopped certifying products containing NYTAL 100HR as safe for use by children for ACMI (Arts & Creative Materials Institute).  ACMI’s stated position is that they are only ceasing to certify the NYTAL products due to public perception, not due to any risk. Stopford also doesn’t say the talc contains asbestos, only that the fibers may cause asbestos-type diseases at high doses.

Stopford’s opinion is not the opposing view. It is only one hairsbreadth away from Vanderbilt’s opinion.

If Zamek really wanted a fair presentation of the opposing side, he could have used the opinion of one of Dr. Stopford’s fellow professors at Duke University, Dr. John M. Dement, head of Duke’s epidemiology department. Dement was a major contributor to the 1980 NIOSH Technical Report and he has consistently maintained for almost 30 years that this talc contains asbestos and causes lung cancer and mesothelioma in R.T. Vanderbilt workers.

Zamek’s and CM’s failure to fairly present the talc issue in the past and present will encourage potters to continue to use this talc. And while Zamek mentioned that the Connecticut Health Department sent a warning about the talc to their teachers, many other schools in the US probably still use NYTAL-containing clays. Two NIOSH studies of high school potteries in 1997 and 2001 both showed there can be significant exposure to clay dust in schools (5,6)* . So if NYTAL-containing clays are used, vulnerable young students could also be exposed to asbestos.

In my opinion, Zamek’s and CM’s continuing failure to deal fairly with this issue makes them both indirectly, and in part, responsible for the next mesothelioma death in a talc-exposed potter or student. And there will be one. The potter in the 2006 case mentioned here was the second ceramicist I know who died of mesothelioma.

If this sounds harsh, remember that for 30 years I have watched the numbers of mesotheliomas rise in workers and in the general population in the county where the mines are located, knowing that each meso-death represents many more cases of lung and other cancers that were caused by this talc. And now the second ceramicist has died. If CM cares about it’s readers, it will warn them.

Monona Rossol, M.S., M.F.A., Industrial Hygienist
Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety

1. Kleinfeld M, Messite J, Kooyman O, et. al. “Mortality among talc miners and millers in New York State,” Arch Environ Health 1967; 14:663-7 (these authors were working for NIOSH at the time.)
2. NIOSH Technical Report: Occupational Exposure to Talc Containing Asbestos (Morbidity, Mortality, and Environmentall Studies of Miners and Millers), John M. Dement, et. al., NIOSH, 1980
3. NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation Report (HETA) 90-300-2065, R.T. Vanderbilt Company, Gouverneur, NY September 1990.
4. Mindy J. Hull, Jerrold L. Abraham, & Bruce W. Case, Ann. Occup. Hyg., Supplement 1, pp. 132-135, 2002
5. NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation Report (HETA) 97-0189-2668, Valley High School,West Des Moines, IA
6. NIOSH Health Hazard Evaluation Report (HETA) 99-0084-2807, Haverhill High School, Haverhill, MA.

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