BRUSSELS, After a Belgian research cautioned last month that synthetic face masks may contain carcinogens, EU regulators claim there is no definitive proof of a cancer risk and have recommended consumers to keep wearing them.
Face masks are widely regarded as critical instruments in the fight against COVID-19, and they have become a daily item for a substantial portion of the global population as a result of the epidemic.
A report in October by Belgium’s public health body Sciensano said it had found titanium dioxide (TiO2), a potentially hazardous substance, in the synthetic face masks it examined, including commonly worn models.
Titanium dioxide is used as a white colorant and matting agent in masks and textile products, as well as sunscreen, paints and food products such as soups and chewing gums.
“In the light of the currently available elements, it cannot be concluded that FFP face masks or surgical masks, which may contain TiO2, may pose a risk to health,” a Commission spokesperson told Reuters when asked about the Sciensano report.
He also said that Belgium planned to force manufacturers to disclose the presence of titanium dioxide in face masks.
A spokeswoman for the Belgian Superior Health Council, which advises the government on health issues, said potential health risks did not “outweigh the benefit of their use to prevent COVID-19 contamination”.
According to the Belgian study, nanoparticles of titanium dioxide were found in masks made of non-woven synthetic fabrics, and in those containing nylon and polyester fibres.
Joris Van Loco, one of the report’s authors, told Reuters that TiO2 particles were found in most of the commonly used masks, including reusable and single-use textile models, surgical masks and FFP respirators.
The report’s preliminary findings said a health risk was “possible for many of the examined face masks” but said more research was needed. It recommended use of titanium dioxide in face masks be limited until there was conclusive evidence.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists titanium dioxide as a possible carcinogen.
Belgium first flagged its concerns in February, when it advised the public against using batches of face masks previously distributed for free after it emerged they contained nanoparticles of silver and TiO2.
The European Commission has proposed to ban titanium dioxide in food from as early as mid-2022 after the EU’s food safety agency said the substance was no longer safe because carcinogenic effects could not be excluded when it is ingested.