Home Health Mercury-laced cosmetics banned in the US, sold in the Philippines

Mercury-laced cosmetics banned in the US, sold in the Philippines


Text by Henrylito D. Tacio

Photo: Getty images

Eleven skin lightening products banned in the United States for containing mercury are sold to Filipino consumers posing a serious health risk for their mostly women users, as well as other household residents, especially children.

The EcoWaste Coalition, an advocate for a zero waste and toxics-free society, revealed that it had purchased 11 skin lightening products made in China, Pakistan and Thailand that were among those found to contain mercury by health authorities in the states of California, Minnesota and New York. 

“We obtained the items from cosmetic stores and from online sellers during our market monitoring. Based on the chemical screening we conducted, the items are contaminated with high levels of mercury ranging from 2,230 to 58,400 parts per million (ppm), way above the global limit of one ppm,” said Aileen Lucero, the national coordinator of EcoWaste Coalition.

Mercury is a liquid silver metal that has found many uses in industry. The Haribon Foundation, an environmental group, says that in the Philippines, mercury is primarily used for processing gold, lead and zinc.

Mercury is also used in making batteries, electrical materials, chlorine, and caustic soda, paint, medicine, paper, dental amalgam and pesticides.

Unknowingly, mercury is likewise utilized as an ingredient in beauty products such as soaps, lotions, hair-straighteners, skin bleaches and many more.

Humans have had a long history with mercury, and it is well known, for instance, that mercury was used in the gold plating of the Great Buddha in Nara, and in the Edo period in medicine and facial powder. Furthermore, Japanese place names such as Niu indicate areas where mercury was produced and used long ago.

Mercury has long been known to be toxic; the phrase “mad as a hatter” refers to the 19th-century occupational disease that resulted from prolonged contact with the mercury used in the manufacture of felt hats. Some workers today, especially laboratory technicians, nurses, and machine operators, continue to be exposed to mercury on the job.

Mercury is classified into inorganic mercury and organic mercury. Metallic mercury, which is a type of inorganic mercury, is used in familiar items such as fluorescent lights, batteries, and thermometers. 

The methyl mercury which caused Minamata disease is a type of organic mercury. It is a white powdery substance and smells like the sulfur in a hot spring. It is easily absorbed from the stomach into the blood and carried to the liver and kidney, and then the brain and even the fetus, where it is absorbed and concentrated and causes great damage to the human body.

Minamata disease was called such since it was discovered in the communities near Minamata Bay in Japan. It happened in the late 1950s.

Minamata disease is caused by eating large quantities of fish and shellfish polluted by methyl mercury in factory wastewater. It is not a contagious disease transmitted through air or food, and it is not inherited.

In Minamata disease, the mercury that enters the body mainly attacks the central nervous system, including the brain, and causes various symptoms including numbness and unsteadiness in the legs and hands, tiredness, ringing in the ears, narrowing of the field of vision, loss of hearing, slurred speech, and awkward movements. 

Historical records showed that some early severe victims of Minamata disease went insane, became unconscious, and died within a month of the onset of the disease.

Once mercury is released into rivers, lakes, and other aquatic environments, bacteria can transform the mercury into its organic form – highly toxic methylmercury. Mercury, in this form, can be absorbed by creatures living in water. It increases in concentration (so-called “biomagnifying”) as it moves up the food chain to fish and then to humans. 

“All humans are exposed to some level of mercury,” says the Geneva-based World Health Organization. “Most people are exposed to low levels of mercury, often through chronic exposure (continuous or intermittent long-term contact). 

“However, some people are exposed to high levels of mercury, including acute exposure (occurring over a short period of time, often less than a day). An example of acute exposure would be mercury exposure due to an industrial accident.”

Meanwhile, the EcoWaste Coalition reminded consumers to shun chemical whiteners and embrace their natural skin color in order for them to avoid mercury exposure. 

The group further urged consumers to discontinue their use of skin lightening products with mercury and other hazardous substances, visit a doctor for medical evaluation, and properly dispose of such products.

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