In the summertime when the weather is hot – apply your sunscreen. This is what dermatologists have been telling us for years in order to prevent skin cancer.
At the same time, a key ingredient in most sunblock brands, titanium dioxide, has been rated “possibly carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
So would IARC have us believe that the measures we are taking to prevent cancer are actually causing it?
Tiny particles of titanium dioxide are used in sunblock as a shield to protect the skin from ultraviolet light. It gives sunblock and other beauty products, like pressed powder, their white color. IARC went about researching whether or not those tiny particles could be carcinogenic to humans if absorbed into the blood stream or inhaled.
IARC’s panel of scientists reviewed studies and found “conflicting evidence as to whether nanoparticles of titanium dioxide can pass through the skin.” Furthermore, when IARC reviewed studies on inhaling the particles (which could happen with spray sunscreen), they apparently found no association with lung cancer in humans. Basically they weren’t able to prove any danger to humans, but still the organization classified titanium dioxide as “possibly carcinogenic.”
This conflicting evidence appears shaky, at best. The real danger is that the IARC label could mislead the public, resulting in panic — and increased litigation.
The loose carcinogenic label from IARC is a golden opportunity for the plaintiffs’ bar, as these tiny particles are found in most sunblock brands, as well as in makeup. California in particular is a hotbed for product liability litigation. The state ranked dead last for treatment of class action and mass consolidation suits in ILR’s 2015 Harris Poll of state legal climates, in part due to its Proposition 65 law that has resulted in over 16,000 lawsuits.
Under Proposition 65, the state is required to publish a list of known and potential carcinogens and businesses must provide warnings to customers if the products they manufacture contain those chemicals. As you might have guessed, titanium dioxide particles were added to that list.
A lawsuit was brought by Public Interest Alliance against around 100 businesses for failing to warn customers, even though the group itself stated that there was no evidence these products were “necessarily unsafe.” The case was eventually dismissed by a judge for lack of merit, but the litigation took years and numerous companies were pressured to settle and pull their products, like sunscreens, from shelves.
The about-face on sunscreen raises real concerns about whether IARC’s labels are based on relevant facts, or conflicting and misleading evidence. The takeaway here is that American companies — and consumers — are at risk of getting burned by IARC’s carcinogenic labels.