Bad ideas are a dime a dozen in the European Union’s Brussels headquarters, especially when it comes to applying science to the real world. This month, a committee with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) – the authority charged with implementing the EU’s chemical regulations – seemingly decided the fair-skinned among us might be better off fighting melanoma than being exposed to sunscreen.
ECHA believes a compound called titanium dioxide – one of only two natural UV blockers that is heavily used in sunscreens, lotions, and cosmetics – should be classified as a suspected carcinogen.
Though complex in name, titanium dioxide should be a familiar assistant. SPF foundation? Titanium dioxide. “Natural” sunscreen? I’ll spare you the repetition. Along with its ability to absorb the sun’s UV rays to protect against skin cancer, the naturally occurring pigment is responsible for coloring most products of modern life brilliantly white. You can thank titanium dioxide for pigmenting everything from your iPhone and Tylenol to tattoos and toothpaste. In fact, titanium dioxide has been safely used for over a century, and even replaced dangerous lead compounds in paint.
Certainly, even a seemingly “miracle substance” deserves to be appropriately regulated if it causes harm. But the European case against titanium dioxide has no scientific basis.
Three studies, which followed a combined 20,000 workers who handle titanium dioxide through their job, found that their cancer rate did not differ from the general population. Oddly enough, France cited each of these studies as evidence of titanium dioxide’s harm when the country first brought forth the issue to the EU.
It was only through studies where rats were exposed to extreme “overload” conditions – spraying powder directly into the lungs at concentrations akin to breathing a thick cloud of dust – that cancer growth occurred.
Oddly enough, ECHA actually recommends against conducting studies this way, because they aren’t applicable to humans.
While Europe cries that the sky is falling with every whisper that something might cause cancer, they might want to consider the consequences of labeling a substance that quite literally protects us from cancer as a suspected carcinogen itself.
Even if Europe doesn’t specifically regulate titanium dioxide (ECHA only bans “presumed” and “known,” not “suspected” carcinogens from cosmetics) the implications are broad.
The European Network of Cancer Registries estimates approximately 100,000 Europeans faced a new malignant melanoma diagnosis in 2012 – 3% of all new cancer cases on the continent. If our nation’s own “natural” counterculture is any indication, it’s only a matter of time until titanium dioxide joins the ranks of maligned chemicals and is forced from the market.
Without titanium dioxide, Europe is left with just one other European Commission-approved natural UV protectant: Zinc oxide, of conspicuous lifeguard nose fame. The same stands on our side of the pond.
The United States often takes its regulatory cues from Europe, but it would be in our own best interest to make a simple Amerexit when it comes to chemical policies. With our own models for chemical regulation already in place — the U.S. has only approved about half as many UV-blockers as Europe has — we must flex our muscles against poorly handled classifications streaming in from across the pond.
Dr. Joseph Perrone is the Chief Science Officer for the Center for Accountability in Science, a nonprofit organization that provides a balanced look at the science behind sensational headlines, and seeks to debunk junk science and correct public misconceptions.