Public health officials expressed concern about the levels of toxic mercury found in some skin creams at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. Dr. Gordon Vrdoljak of the California Department of Public Health said his lab found dangerously high amounts in skin lightening creams, which are often made outside the U.S.
In California, there have been about 60 cases of mercury poisoning in the past 5 years, Vrdoljak said. In many cases, people seek medical help when they experience symptoms like shaky hands, headaches, or fatigue. When mercury is identified at the cause of the problem, the Department of Health can work with patients to find the source.
In the U.S., products can contain no more than 1 part mercury per million, but Vrdoljak found creams with levels as high as 210,000 parts per million. These creams are used to lighten skin, bleach dark spots and even treat acne. Although effective, the mercury has been shown to damage the kidneys, impair cognitive functioning, cause headaches and cause depression.
Despite the limits imposed by the U.S. and several other countries, skin products containing high levels of the toxin are still slipping below the regulatory radar. The creams are typically purchased outside of the U.S., and are brought into the country in personal luggage. They may be distributed among friends and family, or sold in small ethnic markets. In some cases, the products may even be homemade.
Lightening creams usually contain mercury salts, which is absorbed through the skin. “If you’re rubbing your face, rubbing your eyes and eating, you can also ingest it,” Vrdoljak said at a press conference.
It’s not only the users of the creams who are at risk, but their families as well. The substance can be transferred by touch, contaminating food and bedding. Mercury can also become airborne and contaminate the rest of the house.
Vrdoljak developed a new way of testing products for mercury, called total reflection x-ray fluorescence. The method allows researchers to detect the presence of mercury more accurately, and also to test more samples in a day.
Better testing means that Vrdoljak's team can be more proactive about identifying harmful products. It's difficult to know how commonly these products are used in the U.S., said Vrdolijak, "But at least with this new technique, we can identify them much faster and help more people than before."