Nanotech sunscreen scandal update

Louise Sales

It's been a busy few months for the nanotechnology campaign at Friends of the Earth. In July, we launched an ACCC complaint against two Australian sunscreen ingredient manufacturers – Antaria Limited and Ross Cosmetics − for marketing nano sunscreen ingredients as non-nano. This generated extensive media coverage and led one of the world's leading certifiers of organic and natural cosmetics – Ecocert − to suspend its certification of ZinClear IM.

In August we also lodged an ASX complaint against Antaria. We claim that by failing to notify the ASX of evidence that its ZinClear IM product is a nanomaterial, and that the product's Ecocert accreditation has been suspended, the company is in violation of stock market rules. We are still awaiting the ACCC and ASX rulings and will keep Chain Reaction readers posted!

The revelation that Antaria and Ross have been marketing nano sunscreen ingredients as non-nano has left us in a tricky position, as we can no longer rely on statements from companies to determine whether or not products contain nanomaterials. We are still in the process of researching which brands we can recommend to the public and are hoping to be able to provide some more accurate information in time for this summer.

Take Action

If nano-ingredients in sunscreen were properly labelled and safety tested, we wouldn't be in this mess! Please email the Parliamentary Secretary for Health Catherine King MP and demand the proper regulation of nano-ingredients in sunscreen. You can email her via our website: http://nano.archive.foe.org.au

The impact of nanotechnology on developing countries

In the past few months the impact of nanotechnology on the developing world has also come under scrutiny, with GRET (a non-profit association of professionals for fair development) releasing a report on the topic. This concluded that "conditions are not yet in place to ensure that developing countries, and in particular Least Developed Countries (LDCs), benefit fairly and without risk from the potential progress in nanotechnology."

Worldwide, funding of public research into nanotechnologies has risen from one billion dollars in 2000 to nearly ten billion in 2011. Most industrialised countries have set up national nanotechnology research programs and public investment in nanotechnology is estimated to have risen by 20% over the past three years. Yet despite all the rhetoric about nanotechnology being needed to purify water in the developing world and to help meet our global energy needs, only a tiny percentage of research is focused on finding solutions to agricultural, sanitary or energy problems in developing countries.

A host of nanotechnology based products of dubious merit − including odour controlling undies, anti-wrinkle creams and hygienic pet beds − have been produced for markets in the developed countries. However, applications that could potentially meet needs in developing countries − such as nanomembranes for water purification − are still rare or being developed.

Moreover, in developing countries with weak national regulations, this increases the risk that uncontrolled, uncoordinated nanotechnology development could have a negative impact − particularly in countries with manufacturing based economies such as China.

More evidence of harm

In the past few months a number of studies have emerged demonstrating the potential for nanomaterials to cause harm to human health and the environment. New research published in Toxicology Sciences this August found that inhaling tiny fibres made by the nanotechnology industry could cause similar health problems to asbestos. Some are similar in shape to asbestos fibres, which have caused lung cancers such as mesothelioma. Nanofibres are used in a range of products, ranging from aeroplane wings to tennis rackets and golf clubs.

Whilst the use of nanomaterials is increasing, their environmental impact is still poorly understood. A study published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in September found that plastic nanoparticles in seawater can have an adverse effect on sea organisms. Mussels exposed to such particles eat less, and thus grow less well.

A further study published in PNAS showed that zinc oxide and cerium oxide nanoparticles adversely affect soybean growth and soil fertility. The nanoparticles harmed bacteria that the plant relies on for growth. Zinc oxide is a common component of cosmetics and sunscreens and ultimately ends up as a contaminant of solid waste generated by sewage treatment. This waste is widely used as an organic fertiliser. Cerium oxide is used in some diesel fuels to improve combustion and reduce particulate emissions. The authors concluded that the build-up of manufactured nanomaterials in soils may compromise soil-based crop quality and yield.

Given the paucity of data regarding the potential harmful effects of nanomaterials, some countries are taking a justifiably precautionary approach. For example, Denmark recently announced that it would be joining France and the Netherlands in moving towards a mandatory register of nanomaterials. This will not only allow the tracking of nanomaterials through the supply chain and allow workers handling nanomaterials to adopt appropriate cautionary measures.

Meanwhile, our federal government has refused to take similar action here. A recent study commissioned by the government concluded that the feasibility of implementing a similar system here was "questionable", despite the fact that other countries are in the process of doing it.

Louise Sales is the Nanotechnology Project Coordinator at Friends of the Earth Australia. nano.archive.foe.org.au, louise.sales@archive.foe.org.au