Regulatory Bodies Draw Differing Conclusions About Titanium Dioxide
A recent lawsuit has grabbed headlines and raised consumer concerns with its claim that Skittles, the popular many-colored candies, contain “a known toxin”: the chemical titanium dioxide. The suit, filed by a consumer in July against Skittles manufacturer Mars, notes that the European Union is banning titanium dioxide as a food additive.
But in the U.S., Canada and many other countries, titanium dioxide is still deemed safe for consumption, within regulated amounts. So what does the science actually say about the chemical, which is also used in cosmetics and sunscreens? Scientific American reached out to several toxicologists who have studied whether titanium dioxide can cause harm to get some answers. (We also asked Mars to comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.)
It turns out there is no conclusive research showing the chemical, as it is used in food products, poses danger to people. Some hints from animal studies have prompted European countries to act out of an abundance of caution. Yet “saying we’re not certain that it’s safe is very different from saying it’s unsafe,” says Agnes Oomen, a senior scientist at the Netherlands’ National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, who has studied the chemical.
Why did different countries come to different safety conclusions?
There are different approaches to weighing risk. To ban titanium dioxide in food, actual proof of increased risk is required by regulatory agencies in countries such as the U.S. This is also true in Canada, where a recent evaluation of scientific evidence led to the conclusion that titanium dioxide as a food additive is safe. In the E.U., however, uncertainty about safety—the inability to rule out potential harm—is enough to trigger regulatory action.
Although Oomen believes the E.U.’s cautious response to titanium dioxide is warranted, she says methods used to study the chemical need to be improved so they lead to more definitive conclusions about human health. For example, she notes, research should provide titanium dioxide in food in amounts comparable to what people would ingest.
Kaminski agrees that better research methods are needed, but—as of now—he is not worried. “I think that titanium dioxide in the amount that it’s used in Skittles and food products is of no toxicological concern or health concern to the public,” he says.
“There’s just not the evidence to support that currently.”
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