People often assume that I spend most of my time in the lab formulating products. If only! There are people who can manage to do that but only in very big companies which have big teams. The reality for most formulators, and certainly for me, is that you spend the biggest part of your time troubleshooting. When I started working as a freelancer I did think I might be able to skip doing quite as much. But it turns out that there is more demand for trouble shooting than there is for straight product development.
But you might be wondering what exactly I mean. Welll there’s a good example of the kind of problem that needs the attention of somebody who has a reasonable idea of how the world of product developement works in the news right now. I am not involved in this one in any way so it is interesting to have a look at it. Clair’s Accessories have had to withdraw some products because they might contain asbestos.
The origin of this story is that a mother became curious and decided to get her daughter’s products tested for their asbestos content. The results came back positive. Her and her husband, who is a lawyer, then got hold of more samples from across the United States and repeated the tests. They again found that the offending material was present.
This is just about all the detail that is in the public domain. The company have moved quickly to recall the product – which is wise. They haven’t revealed what is going in in great detail – which is also wise. And they seem to be taking the whole thing very seriously judging by their public statement. This again is wise. I’d do exactly the same in their shoes.
So how do you go about troubleshooting an incident like this? The first thing is to try to work out what the situation is by working out what has happened. The very first step would be to list all the possible explanations and rate them.
The possibilities in this case would seem to be –
– a false alarm
– a deliberate attempt to blacken their name
– a genuine health hazard
Each of these has several layers to it. For example the false alarm could be the result of a simple misunderstanding. The results might be wrong or might be being misinterpreted.
The motivation of the woman complaining might be financial, or she might be drawn to the idea of becoming a famous whistle blower or she could even have a grudge against Claires.
Or there could be a real issue with the way their products are being made.
It’s important not to prejudge what is going on at the early stage of a problem like this. The world is a weird place and really odd things happen from time to time. But nonetheless there are some obvious lines of enquiry. Asbestos is something that is nowhere near as common as it used to be before its dangers were recognised, but nonetheless it does still sometimes turn up in old buildings. It was often used for roofing, so it isn’t impossible that somewhere there might be a warehouse that, almost certainly unknown to the people who work there, is shedding a rain of asbestos particles down onto packaging. But there is another, perhaps more likely, source. It has been known for talc to be contaminated with asbestos. Or rather, it would be more accurate to say that talc does sometimes naturally contain asbestos. Both talc and asbestos are natural materials and it just so happens that they are rather similar geologically. This is something that is well known and is taken into account when talc is mined. So asbestos containing talc shouldn’t get into products. But possibly something has gone wrong in the supply chain. A third possibility is that the products have been deliberately tampered with. I have to say that asbestos is far from a good choice if you want to cause alarm. It isn’t that big a health risk in small quantities especially if not inhaled. But it is hard to see how a malicious person could avoid putting themselves at risk while setting it up.
So now we’ve identified the potential causes, what next?
The technical manager in charge of this investigation has quite a few resources at his disposal. I don’t know if Claire’s Accessories runs its own lab – it might do but probably doesn’t. But its suppliers will, and they will have a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on. A few phone calls should make the situation a lot clearer. There will also be batch manufacturing records. If a jar is taken off the shelf anywhere, it will be possible to trace it back to the factory where it was made, and the day it was filled. Further digging will reveal where and when the original material itself was made. And records will be kept of the origin of all the raw materials that were used.
If the supply chain is fully computerised this information might be obtainable within a couple of days. A lot of companies still use paper so it might take a little longer if the details need to be retrieved by hand, but this will only slow the investigation down slightly.
It is then a matter of getting enough samples tested to identify clearly what the source of the problem is. So the first question is whether the asbestos is coming from talc or from a building. If some products contain talc and others don’t life is a bit easier. If not then samples with high and low talc levels will need to be looked at. There is also the important check to be made, one which can sometimes be forgotten in the heat of the moment, to test some old samples. You want to make sure that this is a new problem and not something that has been going on for years. It is also a good idea to get hold of some similar products made by another company. If possible, samples of the raw materials should also be tested.
So somebody somewhere has a lot of work to do. There is a particularly interesting twist to this story. We don’t know what the outcome is yet. It is most likely that the level of asbestos is in reality simply too low to either worry about do anything about. Atoms are very small and very mobile and detection technology is very sensitive. Just because you can find something doesn’t automatically mean there is a problem with it. Asbestos is a naturally occurring material and will inevitably turn up from time to time. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to be a problem any more than eating a single grain of salt is going to give you a heart attack.
But nonetheless I’ll be watching this story with interest because although it is quite likely to be a non-event there is always a small chance it is something more serious. And if so there is a very good chance that this will affect a lot more than Claire’s Accessories. Talc isn’t mined to the order of a particular customer. It is distributed around quite widely. So if the talc being used in one product is affected, it will affect a lot more besides. When cosmetics are made the batch numbers of all the materials used are diligently noted, and records kept. If there is a problem it will rapidly be possible to identify all the other batches and products affected. Potentially it could be quite a lot. If so, a lot of chemists and managers will be very busy.
Postscript – Since writing this Claire’s Accessories have announced that two independent labs have tested their products and found them to be free of asbestos. The complainants are sticking by their story. Anything is possible, but it seems most likely that there was never any asbestos present.