This week's reports that major sunscreen brands were mistakenly marketing their products as ''nano-free'', while their products were in fact based on nanotechnology ingredients, adds to the growing crisis in consumer confidence.
Especially in Australia, where millions of us rely on sunscreens to protect us from skin cancer, we want to know that our sunscreens are effective and safe. We take for granted that sunscreen companies not only know what's in their products, but that sunscreen ingredients are properly assessed before commercial use.
The revelation that 13 leading sunscreen brands had no idea that some of their products contain nanomaterials is shocking. Affected products include Cancer Council ''Classic'', Coles ''Sports'', Woolworths ''Clear Zinc'' and Invisible Zinc ''Junior'' sunscreen. If major brands have no idea that they are marketing nano-products, it defies credibility that risk identification and risk management in the sector is up to scratch. And when the nanotech sector is plagued by debate about the toxicity of its products, that's a big cause for concern.
Nanotechnology, the ''science of the small'', is touted for its economic promise. Both the NSW and Federal governments have invested generously in the sector, hoping that it will live up to the hype of underpinning ''the next industrial revolution''.
But there is growing evidence that the novel properties of nanomaterials can pose a new range of poorly understood health and environmental risks.
In 2008-9, the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into Nanotechnology recommended that nanoparticles be treated by regulators as new chemicals. This would require companies to undertake safety assessment before using nano-ingredients in products. The inquiry also supported mandatory labelling of nano-ingredients in sunscreens, cosmetics, foods and workplaces.
Europe has been quick to act on the emerging evidence of health harm associated with nanomaterials. New laws will come into effect next year requiring European sunscreen and cosmetics companies to conduct nano-specific risk assessments on nano-ingredients, and to label them. New regulation and mandatory labelling are supported by public health and consumer groups, unions and many scientists. In late 2009, the Sydney Morning Herald also editorialised in favour of mandatory labelling, noting that that it makes little sense for a small market such as Australia to have a policy inconsistent with the world's largest cosmetics market.
Unfortunately, despite the precaution, transparency and economic arguments in favour of regulation, here in the country with the highest global incidence of skin cancer, the Therapeutic Goods Administration is refusing to act, leaving nano-sunscreens effectively unregulated.
The absence of requirements for companies to test the safety of nano-ingredients before they put them in sunscreens is made worse by the lack of labelling.
For members of the general public, choosing to avoid nano- sunscreens has been very difficult.
In recent years, Friends of the Earth has produced a ''Safe Sunscreen Guide'', listing 140 brands according to their nano-content, on the basis of written questionnaires completed by sunscreen companies.
Tens of thousands of the guides were distributed each year, in schools, in community centres, through unions and consumer groups.
This summer, we were forced to recall our guide as testing by the National Measurement Institute revealed that several brands listed in our guide as ''nano-free'' in fact contained nanomaterials. These brands were supplied by sunscreen ingredient manufacturer, Antaria Limited, and generic sunscreen manufacturer Ross Cosmetics.
The apparently false claims of ''non-nano'' or ''nanoparticle free'' content by these two Australian manufacturers resulted in leading retail brands making repeated false claims to their customers and wider publics.
Accuracy in labelling and in marketing claims is vital to securing public confidence in this key sector. Australian consumers and workers deserve to be able to make informed choices about whether to use or to avoid nano-sunscreens.
Companies deserve to know whether or not there are nano-ingredients in the products they buy and on-sell. The scandal creates a crisis in consumer confidence, with the responsibility falling firmly in the lap of the government. If the government had properly regulated and labelled nano-ingredients in sunscreen we would never be in this mess.
Dr Gregory Crocetti is a nanotechnology campaigner for Friends of the Earth.