The chemical industry is spending millions to stop people finding out about the potential carcinogenic properties of titanium dioxide, a whitening chemical used in a wide range of products including food and sunscreen.

From birthday cakes to paints and sunscreen, titanium dioxide adds whiteness and brightness to products. But the industry’s lobbying efforts have highlighted a much darker side of the story this week.

In a confidential letter obtained by POLITICO, the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers Association (TDMA) urged EU governments not to classify the substance as a suspected carcinogen.

The group asked “for further time to build the scientific basis” to counter the proposal by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which would require manufacturers to add a warning label to their products.

The letter also reveals the group has already spent €14m in a “science programme” to counter potential restrictions and defend the commercial interests of its members.

Evidence suggests that titanium dioxide can pose a risk to people. In particular, some nano-particles may be able to penetrate body barriers such as brain or placenta, and accumulate in organs like liver and lungs.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) found that titanium dioxide is “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” prompting France to announce a ban of the substance in food this year.

Candies and sweets have been found to contain the highest levels of titanium dioxide.

 

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) also concluded that it can potentially cause cancer, albeit only if it’s inhaled, and recommended the introduction of EU-wide warning labels.

EU governments and the European Commission will start discussing the issue this week amid claims of unprecedented lobbying from the industry.

Two EU officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told POLITICO that they have never experienced so much pressure from a lobby group as from the titanium dioxide industry.

In the letter, the group argues that titanium dioxide is not marketed to consumers in inhalable powder form, and that it can therefore only affect workers at highly exposed workplaces. Therefore, they asked countries to look into other options to address the issue.

On the other hand, NGOs maintain that titanium dioxide can potentially be carcinogenic in all its inhalable forms. They say that it can pose a risk when found in products such as sunscreen sprays, whose content can be inhaled easily even though unintentionally.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) condemned the industry’s efforts “to undermine the evidence-based process of decision making that is supposed to protect people and the environment.” Tatiana Santos, an expert on chemicals with the EEB who has been following the discussions, said:

Lobbyists are spending millions trying to stop people finding out that something they are breathing or eating may be causing cancer.

We won’t allow the industry to intimidate EU governments and put the health of citizens at risk.