In light of Friends of the Earth’s report yesterday on sunscreens’ potential to cause harm to human health and the lack of industry oversight by the government, CNS-UCSB Researcher and UC Santa Barbara Professor of Political Science Bruce Bimber today issued the following statement:
“Friends of the Earth is correct that governments do not require disclosure of manufactured nanoparticles in sunscreens, or other consumer products for that matter. The group is also correct that little is known about which of the many forms of nanoscale materials might be toxic to humans or harmful to the environment. A big reason why so many companies are bringing products to market with nano in them is that nanoscale materials behave in really novel and potentially useful ways compared with their larger-scale incarnations. But novel properties also mean the possibility of unpredictable consequences for human health and the environment. That in a nutshell is the increasingly urgent issue for policymakers.
“Some manufacturers of nanotechnologies, as well as some researchers working on the basic science, are probably going to call Friends of the Earth's report overstated or even alarmist. One predictable response to Friends of the Earth will be that we do not have solid evidence that nanoparticles in sunscreens are unsafe, so it is wrong to warn consumers against products. But Friends of the Earth is not alone saying that the real point is that we do not know that these particles are safe – all we know is that they belong to a class of materials with surprising properties whose behavior in the human environment is not well understood yet. The Royal Society in the United Kingdom is on record expressing concern about manufactured nanoparticles also, as are a number of other expert groups, such as the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are both discussing the kinds of issues raised by Friends of the Earth, though the group is right that neither shows much of an inclination to issue regulations.
“So this report constitutes a worthwhile step in advancing public debate about the safety of chemicals in cosmetics. The group has done consumers a service by simply contacting manufacturers and asking them a straightforward question: Are there manufactured nanoparticles in your product? Their report shows how companies responded.
“Some of the background to the Friends of the Earth report is that they, along with several dozen other organizations, have called for application of the Precautionary Principle to manufactured nanoparticles and other applications of nano. This idea is that corporations bringing products to market where there is some uncertainty regarding health and safety should have to prove to regulators that their products are not harmful before the products are sold. The way things stand now, nanotechnologies can be sold unlabeled, and if it turns out that one or another formulation is harmful to consumers, then the public, manufacturers, and perhaps government will deal with the situation after the face. Some worst-case illustrations of that scenario are asbestos and lead in paint. Some people feel there may be another asbestos-like material in the nanotechnology labs; other people think that likelihood is overstated. Whichever turns out to be true, this is a good time for the public and for regulators to debate the issue, and for corporations to be transparent about what they are selling.”