updated 5/16/2006 9:21:16 PM ET 2006-05-17T01:21:16

Sunscreens made with submicroscopic particles pose a health hazard and should be recalled, environmental groups said Tuesday in asking the government to increase regulation of growing uses of the science of nanotechnology.

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The petition asked the Food and Drug Administration to strengthen its regulation of sunscreens that contain nano-sized titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, saying particles of those minute dimensions pose health and environmental risks, including possible inflammatory and immune responses in the human body. Eight groups, including the International Center for Technology Assessment, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, filed the petition.

In a conference call with reporters, members of those groups said federal regulators are lagging in addressing the risks posed by nanotechnology, especially when it comes to sunscreens and the dozens of cosmetic products that companies are making with nanoparticles, which can be hundreds of times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

"These companies are literally treating their customers like guinea pigs," said Lisa Archer, a senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth. Archer invoked asbestos, DDT and PCBs as examples of other substances where regulatory action came too late to prevent the health and environmental damage that ensued from their use.

Nanotechnology involves the manufacture and manipulation of materials at the molecular or atomic level, or the smallest things can get. At that scale, materials are measured in nanometers or billionths of a meter. Nanoscale materials, including particles used in some sunscreens, are generally less than 100 nanometers in diameter. A human hair, in comparison, is roughly 80,000 nanometers in diameter.

The FDA said last month that it plans an October meeting to discuss the new kinds of nanotechnology materials being developed for use in the products it regulates, including drugs, foods, cosmetics and medical devices. The FDA will review the petition, spokeswoman Susan Cruzan said. "We haven't seen any safety concerns that would cause us to regulate things differently," she added.

Previously, the FDA and other federal regulatory agencies have said their regulatory options are adequate to cover nano-engineered materials. The groups behind Tuesday's petition said the FDA needs new regulations that take into account the unique hazards that "untested" and "unassessed" nanomaterials may pose.

"I would disagree with that," said John Bailey, executive vice president for science at the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, an industry group. "The amount of knowledge that we have for the safety of these materials is more than adequate to deal with their safety in the marketplace. That, combined with the FDA's authority to seek more information if they require, combine to form a powerful check and balance."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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