Investigations in the past few years by FDA and state health officials have turned up more than 35 products that contain unacceptable levels of mercury, linking the illegal products to those being manufactured abroad and sold illegally in the US often in shops in “Latino, Asian, African or Middle Eastern neighbourhoods and online.”
Although “Consumers may also have bought them in another country and brought them back to the US for personal use,” Coody points out.
According to the association, Virginia, Maryland and New York are amongst the states that have seen cases of elevated mercury levels in people exposed to skin products containing mercury, while in Minnesota, 11 of 27 imported skin products taken from store shelves were said to contain mercury.
Texas health officials also reported samples of face cream they tested to have contained mercury up to 131,000 times the allowable level.
“Even though these products are promoted as cosmetics, they also may be unapproved new drugs under the law,” says Linda Katz, director of FDA’s office of cosmetics and colors.
According to the FDA, any skin lightening, anti-aging or other skin product containing the words 'mercurous chloride,' 'calomel,' 'mercuric,' 'mercurio,' or 'mercury,' on its list of ingredients is illegal.
It also warns of products labeled in languages other than English unless English labeling is also provided.
“Sellers and distributors should not market these illegal products and may be subject to enforcement action, which could include seizure of the products and other legal sanctions,” said attorney Brad Pace, of the Heath Fraud and Consumer Outreach.
Tracking products containing mercury
The association continues to add mercury-containing skin products to its import alerts, which authorize the agency’s field staff to refuse admission of shipments of these products.
But this is only a partial solution, says Coody. “Many of these products are coming into the country through channels we can’t easily track, such as international mail and personal baggage. That’s why it’s so important for sellers to know about the dangers of possible mercury poisoning associated with the use of these skin products.”
FDA's regulation on mercury levels
According to the association, the use of mercury compounds as cosmetic ingredients is limited to eye area cosmetics at concentrations not exceeding 65 parts per million (0.0065 percent) of mercury calculated as the metal (about 100 ppm or 0.01 percent phenylmercuric acetate or nitrate) and is permitted only if no other effective and safe preservative is available for use.
All other cosmetics containing mercury are adulterated and subject to regulatory action unless it occurs in a trace amount of less than 1 part per million (0.0001 percent) calculated as the metal and its presence is unavoidable under conditions of good manufacturing practice.
As part of its National Consumer Protection week, the FDA is warning consumers not to use skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps, or lotions that might contain mercury.
"We've known about this for several years and warned on it in the past, but have seen an uptick in the cases of mercury poisoning, so felt it was important to remind people about the dangers," says Siobhan DeLancey, an FDA spokesperson.
FDA toxicologist Mike Bolger warned that; “People—particularly children—can get mercury in their bodies from breathing in mercury vapours if a member of the household uses a skin cream containing mercury.”