Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Images from WHO
Some Filipino women believe that men fall for ladies who have white skin. So much so that they resort to using skin whitening cosmetics. But they fail to recognize that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” They believe, however, that beauty is “skin deep.”
What most Filipinas don’t know is that some of the skin whitening cosmetics they are applying to their skins actually contain mercury, a toxic chemical.
“Despite the 2020 phase-out for such cosmetics under the Minamata Convention on Mercury, traders continue to flout the laws with impunity,” deplored EcoWaste Coalition, a toxics watchdog group.
In a press statement released to the media, the group said that skin whitening cosmetics containing mercury “still abound on store shelves in open defiance of the national and global efforts to make these hazardous products a thing of the past.”
Aileen Lucero, the group’s national coordinator, said, “Our latest market investigation covering nine cities from Baguio to Davao shows blatant trade in smuggled cosmetics, particularly facial creams, with undisclosed mercury content as high as 30,410 parts per million (ppm).”
“Companies target and lure consumers into buying these facial creams with the promise that using these so-called skincare products will lighten the skin tone, get rid of dark spots, and fight aging,” she said.
Test buys conducted by the group from March 27 to April 27 collected 44 facial creams sold for P62 to 250 each at cosmetic, general merchandise, and Chinese drug stores operating in the cities of Baguio, Tarlac, Angeles, Mabalacat, Manila, Pasay, Pasig, Antipolo, and Davao. Except for one, the products have been flagged by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for containing mercury and/or for lacking the required Certificate of Product Notification (CPN).
The products were then screened for mercury using an Olympus Vanta M Series X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer, which detected high levels of mercury in 42 out of 44 samples.
The FDA, through Advisory No. 2017-289, has warned the public against the purchase and use of these products.
“Adverse health effects brought about by highly toxic mercury in cosmetic products include kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration, and scarring,” the advisory said. “Chronic use reduces the skin’s normal resistance against bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.”
Women are the main target of these hazardous cosmetics and are also the most vulnerable to the toxic effects of mercury exposure, especially if they are of child-bearing age.
As FDA explained, “The transfer of mercury to fetuses of pregnant women may manifest as neurodevelopmental deficits later in life.”
The Minamata Convention, which entered into force in August 2017, has set a 2020 phase-out deadline for the manufacture, import, and export of mercury-added products, including skin-lightening creams and soaps with mercury above one ppm, which is also the limit for mercury as a contaminant in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Cosmetic Directive.
Mercury, a naturally occurring element that is found in air, water, and soil, is considered by the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals “of major public health concern.”
The phrase “mad as a hatter” refers to the 19th-century occupation disease that resulted from prolonged contact with mercury used in the manufacture of felt hats.
People may be exposed to mercury in any of its forms under different circumstances. “Exposure to mercury – even in small amounts – may cause serious health problems,” the WHO points out. “Mercury may have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.”
Once released into the environment, mercury can be transformed by bacteria into what experts call methylmercury. Scientists say this white powdery substance “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.
When mercury is released into the atmosphere, it dissolves in fresh water and seawater. This is very important as Filipinos consider fish as a staple food along with rice.
Here’s what happened next, according to a Live Science feature written by Alina Bradford: “Once in the water, mercury makes its way into the food chain. Inorganic mercury and methylmercury are first consumed by phytoplankton, single-celled algae at the base of most aquatic food chains. Next, the phytoplankton is consumed by small animals such as zooplankton. Small fish that eat the zooplankton are exposed to food-borne mercury that is predominantly in the methylated form. These fish are consumed by larger fish, and so on until it gets to humans.”
Even if you cook fish and shellfish well, cooking won’t eliminate the mercury they contain. Predatory fish such as large tuna, swordfish, king mackerel, pike, walleye, barracuda, and marlin contain the highest methylmercury concentrations.
Among the fish species with the lowest levels of mercury include dilis (anchovies), hito (catfish), galunggong (mackerel), salmon, sardines, tilapia, and bangus (milkfish).
What is alarming is that people who eat fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury are also ingesting the compound. A study published by the Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health said that about 80%-90% of organic mercury in the human body comes from eating fish and shellfish, and 75%-90% of organic mercury existing in fish and shellfish is methylmercury.
“All humans are exposed to some level of mercury,” the WHO says. “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.”
According to WHO, there are factors that determine whether health effects occur and their severity. These include the type of mercury concerned, the dose, the age or developmental stage of the person exposed, the duration of exposure, and the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, or dermal contact).
There are people who are more sensitive to the effects of mercury than others. “The populations most vulnerable to mercury are pregnant women (because it affects foetuses) and small children,” wrote Linda Greer, Michael Bender, Peter Maxson, and David Lennett, authors of Curtailing Mercury’s Global Reach, one of the reports included in the State of the World published by Worldwatch Institute.
“A child’s brain develops throughout the first several years of life, and mercury interferes with development of the neuron connections in the brain crucial to a healthy nervous system. High levels of prenatal and infant mercury exposure can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, or blindness,” the four authors noted.
Even in much lower doses, mercury exposure is still dangerous. “(It) may affect a child’s development, leading to such results as poor performance on neurobehavioral tests, particularly those relying on attention, fine motor function, language, visual spatial abilities (such as drawing), and verbal memory,” the four authors pointed out.
Also, there are people described as “vulnerable,” people who are regularly exposed to high levels of mercury. Examples include fishermen on subsistence fishing or people who are occupationally exposed, like those working in a factory.
In a study released by WHO, it was found that among selected subsistence fishing populations, between 1.5/1000 and 17/1000 children showed cognitive impairment (mental retardation) caused by consumption of fish containing mercury.
Meanwhile, to protect human health and the environment, the EcoWaste Coalition again urged the government, including local government, health, and police authorities, to get to the bottom of the illegal trade of mercury-containing cosmetics, identify and prosecute the culprits, and completely rid the marketplace, including online shopping platforms, of such dangerous cosmetics.
The group further urged the authorities to initiate a participatory review of the implementation of the country’s “National Action Plan for the Phase-Out of Mercury-Added Products and the Management of Associated Mercury-Containing Wastes” adopted in 2019.