Industry lobbyists fight sunscreen cancer warning label

17th July 2018 / EU
Industry lobbyists fight sunscreen cancer warning label

By Corporate Europe Observatory: Industry lobbyists are spending millions of euros to influence an upcoming EU decision on labelling titanium dioxide – found in everyday products like sunscreen – a “suspected carcinogen”. The lobbying is led by an unregistered trade association and a public relations consultancy; nonetheless, they appear to have the ear of member states and the European Commission.


Corporate lobbyists are waging a fierce battle to prevent the European Union labelling titanium dioxide – a chemical ubiquitous in many everyday items including sunscreen – a “suspected carcinogen”. In the face of the lobbying, EU member states’ willingness to instate warning labels on products like sunscreen and paint is weakening. Among those working against the labelling are the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers’ Association (TDMA), which is going under the radar by avoiding the lobby transparency register, and its lobby consultancy Fleishman-Hillard.


Titanium dioxide is a chemical whitener which can be found in sunscreen, toothpaste, foodstuffs like candies, as well as plastics, paints, and many other products. In 2006 the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared titanium dioxide a “possible carcinogen for humans” after tests on animals, with even larger risks in its nano form. Nano-materials are extremely tiny versions of existing chemicals and the concern is that they can accumulate in the body and enter human cell membranes and affect their function.

Despite demanding action on nano-chemicals a few years ago, the EU’s member states appear to be increasingly lukewarm when it comes to regulating titanium dioxide today, specifically the liquid version found in products like sunscreens, paints and cosmetics that can be sprayed and hence inhaled. What can explain this about-turn? Two words: corporate lobbying.


Officials have reported serious industry lobbying as the classification process on titanium dioxide has proceeded. In a May 2018 Politico article, an EU official was reported as saying that “well-organized pressure” has come from industry, with lobbyists apparently asking for meetings with authorities in every country. The official continued: “We always have lobbying, but it’s particularly heavy for this particular substance”. Meanwhile Le Monde reported that when an official at a member state environment ministry agreed to meet with the industry to discuss titanium dioxide, no less than 24 people arrived at their office!

The key lobby group is the Titanium Dioxide Manufacturers’ Association (TDMA) which has embarked on a major influencing operation. TDMA’s members are titanium dioxide producers including: Cinkarna Celje, a major company from Slovenia; Cristal, the world’s second biggest producer of titanium dioxide, with a presence in UK, France, and Belgium; Evonik, a German chemicals company declaring annual EU lobby spend of €1,750,000 – €1,999,999; Venator, a global company based in the US; and others from Poland and the Czech Republic.

On 15 May 2018 a letter and attachments from TDMA were sent to member states’ officials; these have been seen by Corporate Europe Observatory and give insights into the lobby group’s positioning. The TDMA documents repeatedly demand that the classification of titanium dioxide should be “put on hold” until further information is considered. The letter also says that TDMA has set up “a serious 14m euro science programme which will build the scientific basis to help discuss and resolve the many issues that present themselves in the current, unique situation”.

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It is clear that industry is spending €14 million on funding scientific studies into titanium dioxide which will then be promoted to decision-makers. But these studies have not been set up at the behest of the EU decision-makers, but are instead designed by industry, who presumably will also decide what gets published and what doesn’t (including whether the raw data behind the studies will be made public). Industry-funded science research is a classic lobbying tactic, seen on other files. It seems clear that the titanium dioxide industry is trying to lead the classification process and this research programme can be seen as part of their influencing strategy.

Remarkably, TDMA is not in the EU lobby transparency register, even though it appears to be an active lobbyist in Brussels right now. TDMA’s chairman is Robert Bird, who is apparently from member company Venator, and his name and signature were on the 15 May letter sent to member state officials. Yet Venator does not appear in the EU lobby register either; neither do other TDMA members Cinkarna Celje and Cristal.


If TDMA is not in the register, then in theory at least, it cannot sit on any Commission expert groups and it cannot meet with Commissioners or their Cabinets. But that still leaves a major lobbying loophole as thousands of Commission officials fall outside these rules, as well as MEPs and of course member state officials.


Read the full report by Corporate Europe Observatory HERE



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