Australia's food regulator had to apologise to its own advisory group of nanotechnology experts after it "misrepresented" the group's views in its public slapdown of a study that found needle-like nanoparticles in baby formula, internal emails reveal.
Fairfax Media reported last year that tests by an Arizona State University team showed the presence of needle-shaped hydroxyapatite nanoparticles - which the European Union's Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety had concluded was potentially toxic - in two formula products.
Internal emails released under Freedom of Information laws reveal the depths of uncertainty and lack of consensus among Australia's top experts about whether the needle-like nano hydroxyapatite poses a health and safety risk to babies.
Following Fairfax Media's article, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) published a statement saying it had "reviewed all the available information and concluded it does not contain any new evidence to suggest these products pose a risk to infant health and safety. This conclusion is supported by experts from our Scientific Nanotechnology Advisory Group (SNAG)."
Later that day, one of SNAG's six members sent an email saying she "objected" to the second sentence because in her opinion "it misrepresent[ed] what we were asked to comment on at the teleconference", which focused on the study's methodology and findings.
While one SNAG member said he "was not so concerned", another member took the opportunity to again ask FSANZ for "information to support" the statement, namely evidence showing the nanoparticles "were not intentionally added and the concentration of nanoparticles in the samples were negligible, also, these dissolve when mix[ed] with water at a certain temperature".
This member said if FSANZ could provide the requested information, she would not object to the sentence. It is unclear from the released emails whether FSANZ ever provided the materials.
A week later, FSANZ apologised to the SNAG members and changed the contentious sentence to read: "FSANZ consulted with members of our SNAG in reaching our conclusions."
The internal emails, obtained and shared by Friends of the Earth (FoE), which commissioned the ASU study, show FSANZ held three teleconferences with SNAG, whose members hold positions at leading universities and government agencies, about the issue.
In summary, the group said:
- The nanoparticles were present in the samples and the testing method was valid;
- It could not be determined if the nanoparticles were intentionally engineered and added;
- Such nanoparticles can naturally occur from processing;
The emails show some disagreement within the advisory group at the time. Some members said the evidence in the study was insufficient to show that nano hydroxyapatite would dissolve in the infant gut and therefore it couldn't be determined whether they posed a safety risk.
Some members held the position that nano hydroxyapatite didn't pose a risk because they would likely dissolve in the stomach.
But one member pointed to the EU consumer safety committee's concerns in relation to "potential toxicity" and said there was "insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion on safety".
The EU committee's report had concluded needle-like nano hydroxyapatite was potentially toxic and shouldn't be used in oral care products such as toothpaste and mouthwash. It also found these nanoparticles were "fully synthetic".
FSANZ at the time dismissed the report, saying it was based on "insufficient" data related to oral cosmetic products and therefore of limited relevance to the "trace amounts" of nano hydroxyapatite in baby formula.
FSANZ declined to comment for this article.
While nano hydroxyapatite can dissolve in the stomach, questions remain about what occurs in a baby's stomach which is less acidic and the possible absorption through the gums.
On its website, FSANZ states: "Hydroxyapatite is soluble in acidic environments such as the stomach, so small amounts in food are likely to dissolve to release calcium and phosphate. These are essential minerals that are required to be in infant formula products".
Regular hydroxyapatite is a naturally occurring, calcium-rich mineral that gives bones and teeth their rigidity, so its presence in formula is understandable. Sometimes it's taken as a dietary supplement.
But it's the needle-shaped, nano-sized version that's alarming some health experts, as its extremely small size may give it unique properties and behaviours, some of which are unknown and could be harmful.
An FoE spokesman said they wanted affected products removed until safety was established.