By Jane Kirby, Press Association Health Editor
Warning labels on some spray-on sunscreens – saying they contain a substance suspected of causing cancer – may never see the light of day following intensive lobbying by industry, campaigners have said.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has classed the chemical titanium dioxide, a whitening agent, as “a substance suspected of causing cancer” if it is inhaled.
The chemical is mainly used as a whitening or brightening agent in a range of products, including some sweets, chewing gum and cake icing.
It is also used in sunscreens because of its ability to reflect ultraviolet (UV) rays, and can be found in some cosmetics and toothpaste.
The ECHA’s stance has been backed by others, including the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, which concluded that titanium dioxide is possibly carcinogenic to humans.
In November, France said it was banning the use of titanium dioxide in food in light of studies suggesting it may cause cancer.
Now European environmental campaigners say intensive lobbying by industry – worth millions of pounds – means that warning labels on some products may never see the light of day or are to be watered down.
The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a group of around 150 environmental organisations in more than 30 European countries, said unprecedented lobbying by industry and some EU states, including the UK, means the European Commission may ignore the ECHA’s recommendations to put specific carcinogen warnings on some titanium dioxide products.
The EEB said that while the commission accepts that products with the substance in powder form should carry the warning “suspected carcinogen”, it now wants to only say “warning, droplets may be formed when sprayed” for liquid products, such as some spray-on sunscreens.
The EEB said that if such a move is approved, “it would be a flat rejection of the science for commercial reasons” and will “set a dangerous precedent”.
The commission’s proposals are due to be voted on by government officials meeting in Brussels on April 14 and 15.
EEB chemicals policy manager Tatiana Santos said: “It’s obvious that spray paint, hair colouring and sunscreen can end up being inhaled.
“Yet the commission wants to dodge this reality. Hiding health warnings to maintain sales of a toxic product is wrong.
“We are seeing this because industry has spent millions on spin doctors and expensive lawyers when it should have spent that money making its products safer.”
The ECHA reached its conclusion that titanium dioxide is suspected of causing cancer if it is inhaled after examining data on how the substance causes tumours in animals, including rats.
It said that while there are no human studies showing a link, there is “not sufficient justification to consider the carcinogenic effects as not relevant to humans”.
A UK/Slovenia position paper on the issue, submitted to the European Commission, questions the basis for regulation, saying consideration needs to be made of the “regulatory, environmental and socio-economic consequences” of classifying titanium dioxide as a potential carcinogen.
It added: “In our opinion TiO2 (titanium dioxide) has no intrinsic or extrinsic property to cause cancer”, adding that tumour formation was a “secondary non-specific effect” of inflammation that may come from “exposure overload” to the substance.
The Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association (TDMA), which has been contacted for comment, says on its website that “robust, scientific evidence shows that titanium dioxide is safe and does not cause cancer”.
It adds that the opinion that it is a possible carcinogen “relates to inhalation of titanium dioxide” and “has low relevance to food products”.
With food products, titanium dioxide “is incorporated in the finished product and there is almost no risk of inhaling it”, the website says.
“Likewise, the TiO2 in finished products such as paints and plastics is either insoluble or solid and cannot be inhaled.”
Helen Callard, from Cancer Research UK, said: “Titanium dioxide has previously been linked to cancer in animals, but so far there is no good evidence it causes cancer in people.
“But we do know that cancer risk can be reduced by protecting our skin from sun damage.
“So, rather than ditch the sunscreen, use it as a last line of defence alongside spending time in the shade and covering up.”