Sean Fitzgerald spends his days analyzing consumer products for asbestos, ranging from crayons to toys. Even the most minute levels—just a single strand of an asbestos fiber—can be dangerous, and Fitzgerald’s worked on testing many products throughout his decades-long career.
So when a Rhode Island mom, Kristi Warner, sent him her 6-year-old daughter’s glittery makeup kit from tween makeup and jewelry giant Claire’s, he was astonished to find that the amount of fibers of tremolite—a form of asbestos that has been associated with cancers like mesothelioma—he stumbled on numbered in the billions per kit.
“I’m a geologist, not a medical expert,” Fitzgerald told The Daily Beast, “but even one strand can be risky, so that was concerning.”
Fitzgerald’s work and a story in the local Providence-area CBS affiliate has forced Claire’s to issue back-to-back recalls of (as of press time) nine makeup products aimed at girls and tweens, including glitter makeup sets housed in a cell phone box and kits shaped like a star in rainbow colors, with various lip colors and eyeshadows.
Fitzgerald—the director of research and legal services at the Scientific Analytical Institute, a laboratory based in Greensboro, North Carolina—is an expert in testing consumer products for asbestos. He said the type of asbestos fiber found in the tween makeup kits, tremolite, is particularly dangerous.
Talc is a common ingredient in makeup and baby powders that gives these products their dusty, loose finish. The chemical structure of tremolite looks like a long chain which makes the fibers especially “persistent,” Fitzgerald explained. “They last for tens of years in the lung and are very thin and strong,” he said. “The lungs can’t get rid of them and they can become sites of cancer if they’re breathed in.”
What makes asbestos in the tremolite form especially dangerous is the fact that it lodges itself within the lungs and can take years—“30, 40, even 50 years,” Fitzgerald said—for the cancer to develop, meaning figuring out the source of the asbestos poisoning might be nearly impossible and long forgotten when the cancer finally develops.
Tremolite is unique in that it is a type of asbestos that is mined from the Earth. Asbestos regulations in the United States have limited the mining of talc to a few select locations with strict regulations on asbestos, notably in southwest Montana and Kansas, Fitzgerald said. That limits the source of this talc to being from Italy, France, China, and Korea, all of which supply the United States with talc as well. Fitzgerald believes that since Claire’s has a manufacturing base in Hong Kong that the talc’s source is perhaps in China or Korea.
When Fitzgerald tested Warner's daughter's makeup kit, he found unmistakable, overwhelming proof that tremolite was in the glittery makeup kit.
“I physically sank,” Warner told the local news affiliate on Friday about the moment she heard the results. “I ended up sitting on the ground, just trying to wrap my head around how something like that could end up in our home.” When Warner told her daughter that toxic tremolite was found in her makeup kit, her daughter asked, “Am I going to die?”
Fitzgerald wanted to make sure it wasn’t an isolated incident, so he recruited people in nine different cities—from Chicago to Indianapolis to Manhattan’s Upper West Side—to go to Claire’s and buy the same glitter makeup kit. In the end, Fitzgerald tested 17 different kits with 24 different products (some kits included eyeshadow and lip gloss, for example) from those nine different cities, and found that every single one of them clearly contained asbestos at the same frightening levels.
Claire’s announced on Twitter last week that they were pulling all of the products that were found to contain tremolite, saying in its most recent statement that it was going to verify the claims with an independent lab. But on Friday, Claire’s issued another tweet, stating that initial testing had shown the products to not contain asbestos, and that the talcum supply was from a “certified asbestos free European vendor.”
However, Fitzgerald remained steadfast and said that “he knows” there’s going to more recalls coming down the line, and that he’d just gone to a Claire’s in his hometown and found the same bejeweled, glittery star kit that he’d tested and found to have high asbestos levels on the shelf. “I’d bet my paycheck that there are more products with the same tremolite fingerprint on them,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s more [recalls] coming for sure.”