EU denies health risks from face masks after concern report
By Francesco Guaracchio and Bart Bessemans
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union authorities said there was no conclusive evidence that synthetic masks posed a cancer risk and urged people to keep using them after a Belgian study warned last month that they could contain carcinogens.
Masks are important tools to limit the spread of COVID-19 and have become a daily item for a large portion of the world’s population during the pandemic.
A report in October by the Belgian public health authority Sciensano indicated that it had found titanium dioxide (TiO2), a potentially dangerous substance, in the synthetic masks it examined, including in widely used models.
Titanium dioxide is used as a coloring agent and white coating in face masks and textile products, as well as in sunscreens, paints, and food products such as soup and chewing gum.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said there was currently no evidence to suggest that the presence of titanium dioxide in masks posed a health risk, and recommended its use.
“In light of the currently available elements, it cannot be concluded that face or surgical masks that may contain titanium dioxide may pose a health risk,” a UNHCR spokesperson told Reuters in response to a question about the Cincano’s report.
In a statement after the study was published, Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroek said more research was needed, but urged residents to continue using masks because there was no evidence they posed serious health risks.
He also said that Belgium plans to force manufacturers to disclose the presence of titanium dioxide in face masks.
A spokeswoman for Belgium’s High Council of Health, which advises the government on health matters, said the potential health risks “do not outweigh the benefit of using it to prevent COVID-19 contamination.”
According to the Belgian study, titanium dioxide nanoparticles were found in masks made of synthetic non-woven fabrics and in those containing nylon and polyester fibers.
Joris van Loko, one of the report’s authors, told Reuters that TiO2 particles were found in the most widely used masks, including disposable and reusable fabric models, surgical masks and FFP respirators.
According to the report’s preliminary findings, “it is possible that there is a health risk in many of the masks examined,” but more research is needed. He recommended limiting the use of titanium dioxide in face masks until conclusive evidence is available.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization classifies titanium dioxide as a probable carcinogen.
Belgium first raised its concerns in February when it advised the public not to use sets of masks that were previously distributed for free after they were found to contain silver nanoparticles and titanium dioxide.
The European Commission has proposed banning titanium dioxide in food from mid-2022, after the European Union’s Food Safety Agency said the substance was no longer safe because carcinogenic effects when ingested could not be ruled out.
(Reporting by Francesco Guaracio fraguarascio; translated by Thomas Cobos. Editing by Javier Lira)