Health officials from Virginia are investigating the exposure of ten people to mercury from a homemade skin-whitening cream that was imported from Mexico. Three small children and seven adults are being evaluated.
Originally, the investigation began in California, where health officials there were investigating several mercury poisoning cases. It appears the residents received the cream from family members living in California, according to Rebecca LaPrell, an environmental epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health.
"We confiscated four jars and tested the contents and found mercury in the cream itself," she said. "Mercury was detected in their urine." Two jars were unmarked and two had the words “mixto normal” written on the top.
Although the ingestion of mercury is the most typical route of mercury toxicity, it can also be absorbed through the skin. According to the CDC, symptoms are usually delayed for about a month after exposure and usually involve the central nervous system or kidney damage. Possible effects include memory loss, irritability, and tremors.
Skin lightening creams, such as those that claim to eliminate age spots and freckles, historically contained mercury because the metal blocks production of melanin, which gives skin its color. It has been banned from use in cosmetic products since 1990; however, a recent Chicago Tribune investigation found several purchased in stores and online to contain the chemical. The products are to be regulated by the FDA, but there are too few inspectors to review all products, according to spokesperson Ira Allen.
Counterfeit cosmetics are also becoming increasingly more common in the US, according to the FDA. Plus, more and more Americans are shopping online where the manufacturer of the product is not always known. Those without insurance also tend to seek out home remedies versus visiting a physician and obtaining a prescription medication.
Consumers can’t know for sure which creams are tainted, but most appear to be imported from countries such as Lebanon, China, India, Pakistan, and Taiwan. Some key words to look for in the ingredient list are mercury, calomel, mercurio, mercurio chloride and heavy metal