Feds probing homemade skin cream link to mercury
By MICHAEL FELBERBAUM (AP) – May 28, 2010
RICHMOND, Va. — State and federal officials are investigating cases of possible mercury exposure linked to a homemade cream from Mexico that claims to lighten the skin, fade freckles and age spots, and treat acne.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was recently made aware of the issue and is conducting investigations in several states, said spokesman Ira Allen. He would not say which states are included in the investigation.
“We’re very interested in pursuing cases of products that harm people, particularly with mercury, which is especially harmful to children,” Allen said. “Any time we get intelligence on something like this, we act on it.”
Virginia health officials are investigating 10 cases in the central and northwestern parts of the state involving children and adults who had elevated levels of mercury after using the cream over the course of a few years.
Officials in Virginia found out about the cases while assisting California health officials in a case involving a family who had also used the cream, which was sold without ingredient labels at locations in Mexico, said Department of Health public health toxicologist Dwight Flammia. Tests show the cream has about 5 percent to 6 percent mercury.
Historically, mercury has been used in a number of medicinal products including skin-lightening creams, but has been banned from almost all regulated and over the-counter medications in the U.S. because it’s toxic.
“People using homemade-type skin lightening creams has been going on for decades,” said Rebecca LePrell, an environmental epidemiologist with the Virginia health agency. “Right here we’re just kind of capturing the tip of the iceberg.”
The federal agency had issued import alerts in the mid-1990s regarding the cosmetic products from Mexico and the Dominican Republic, which bars the import of the products and prompts authorities to seize products sent through U.S. ports of entry, Allen said.
“It’s impossible to find everything, but this stuff is dangerous,” Allen said, urging people to contact health officials if they have used or purchased such products.
Unregulated products may contain mercury that can be absorbed through the skin. Elevated levels of mercury in the body can affect the nervous system and kidneys. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include irritability, tremors, memory loss, personality change, gum inflammation and upset stomach. None of the Virginia cases showed any symptoms, Flammia said.
The investigation was first prompted by nutritional tests in California done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Flammia said. According to the California Department of Public Health, blood and urine tests showed elevated levels of mercury. Further investigation revealed a family had been using the homemade cream and had relatives in Virginia using the cream. Members of the California family did show symptoms of mercury poisoning, the health department said.