By Ifham Nizam
A study by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) reveals skin whitening cream and soaps that are mushrooming in pharmacies here are contaminated with mercury that causes a number of ailments particularly among pregnant women, infants and children.
The Centre’s Executive Director, Hemantha Withanage told Ceylon Today that the research team had found a number of Chinese and Philippine skin whitening products available in many pharmacies here.
“Similar products from other countries, particularly from India too are available …but we didn’t go into it because the quantity seems to be marginal,” he said.
He strongly believes that the relevant authorities should take tough action against importing such cosmetics.
Most skin lightening creams containing mercury are either white or yellow. Many countries have banned the production of cosmetics, which contain mercury or calomel (Mercurus Chloride), including mascara and lipsticks.
According to scientists, mercury in cosmetics could cause neurological damage. Embryos, foetuses, infants, children and pregnant women are most susceptible to mercury contamination.
Ecowaste Coalition, CEJ’s partner organization in the Philippines found several such products contain high mercury levels, deadly enough to make cancer and other health problems. According to Ecowaste Coalition, 13 of 14 skin whitening products purchased from stores in Manila and Makati Cities tested positive under an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer test and contained 550 Parts Per Million (PPM) to 60,800 PPM of mercury, exceeding the 1 PPM limit under the ASEAN Cosmetics Directive.
Ecowaste identified the 13 products it tested positive of high levels of mercury as: Feique Whitening Anti-Freckle Cream; Feique Golden Aloe Whitening Anti-Scar, Anti Freckle Set; Feique Green Tea Vital Whitening Freckle- Removing Cream; Bai Li Tou Hong and Maidaifu Herbal Moisturizing and Whitening Cream.
These products also include Green Cucumber and Ginseng Six Days Specific Eliminating Freckle Whitening Set; Loreal Paris Anti-Freckle Cream Suit; Aichun Beauty Strongly Whitening Freckle Series (three in one); ‘Special Cream’ (double, label in Chinese); ‘Special Cream’ (single, label in Chinese); Yudantang Ginseng and Ganoderma Lucidum Six Days Specific Eliminating Freckle Whitening Sun Block Cream; Aichun Beauty Green Tea Whitening Speckle Removing Series (three in one); and Aichun Beauty Pawpaw Whitening and Freckle Remover Series (three in one).
According to Dr. Champika Amarasinghe of the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, chronic exposure to mercury through any route can endanger the central nervous system, cause muscle tremors, personality and behaviour changes, memory loss, metallic taste, loosening of the teeth, digestive disorders, skin rashes, brain damage, kidney damage and accumulate in the body.
She said repeated skin contact could cause the skin to turn grey in colour. A suspected reproductive hazard, it may damage the developing foetus and decrease fertility in males and females.
The CEJ studies also indicate school children in science labs prefer mercury as it is the only liquid metal. Lack of a chemical management plan in school laboratories lead to mercury contamination. Many schools have unused chemicals stored for over 50 years with no labels or chemical management.
The Central Environment Authority (CEA) supported some national schools to resolve this problem. CEA is already engaged in management of mercury, under its new project, CEA, Waste Management Unit, Acting Director, Sarojinie Jayasekera, said.
Mercury - a deadly metal
Mercury is a deadly metal that is used in many consumer products and equipment. Soap and creams that contained mercury are sold as skin whitening products.
Mercury thermometers and sphygmomanometers are used in hospitals. Mercury dust/vapour is used in CFL bulbs to give better illumination.
Mercury is used in school laboratories in research due to its high conductivity. It is used in automatic water tank switches and many other equipment. Mercury is also used in Ayurvedic medicine in Sri Lanka, China and India. It is also used in tooth amalgam.
However, mercury is one of the deadliest chemicals. Artisanal and other large scale gold production use mercury to separate gold and let the amalgam flow down the rivers. Small amounts of mercury, is sufficient to destroy a large lake. Some research shows, that fish in the lagoons and some sea fish contain mercury. While Sri Lanka does not produce this chemical, it imports 100% from other countries. The authorities are not concerned about how to control the use of this deadly chemical.
The CEJ is a member of the IPEN (International POPs Elimination Network), which is a civil society network working towards a toxic free future. “We have been monitoring the Mercury treaty negotiations between the nations for the last several years. The next treaty negotiations will be held in Uruguay later this month. We request the Sri Lankan negotiators to consider following positions prepared by the IPEN towards the 4th Inter-governmental Negotiating Committee to prepare a global legally binding document on mercury,” Withanage added.
There are non-mercury alternatives for equipment such as digital thermometers and sphygmomanometers.Developed countries have banned the use of mercury amalgam for tooth fillings and cosmetics. Considering the gravity of the issue, in 2009 many countries agreed to start negotiations under the UN on a Global Mercury Treaty with the goal of completion by 2013.
He added that school laboratories use various instruments such as barometers and thermometers for laboratory testing which can harm school children when broken. Mercury used in producing dental amalgam could harm the dentist. Sphygmomanometers used by doctors for checking blood pressure can also be a source of contamination.
Study reveals products loaded with mercury
Eleven out of 12 skin whitening products tested by the EcoWaste Coalition had mercury levels up to 28,600 PPM, atrociously over and above the Philippine regulatory limit of 1 ppm for mercury in cosmetics.
The toxic watchdog has duly notified Dr. Suzette Lazo, Director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last Friday about its survey, who via e-mail told the group that the agency “Will conduct its own operations based on this.” Mostly made in China, the tainted products are likewise in violation of the tolerable limit of 1 ppm under the “Hygienic Standards for Cosmetics” of the People’s Republic of China, the EcoWaste Coalition pointed out.
The toxic watchdog disclosed the horrendous data following the recent release of its report on toxic metals in children’s products in the Philippines that, among others, found some children’s cosmetics loaded with mercury in the range of 3 to 77 ppm.
“We are shocked to find outrageously high levels of mercury in the cosmetics we tested that ranged from 1,085 to 28,600 PPM, in brazen breach of the country’s regulatory limit,” said Aileen Lucero, Safe Cosmetics Campaigner, EcoWaste Coalition.
“None of the 11 products listed mercury as an ingredient in their labels, indicating the manufacturers’ failure to provide truthful information that can help consumers make sound choices,” she observed.
“Of these mercury-tainted cosmetics, five brands were recalled in 2010 by the government for containing excessive mercury and should no longer be in the market. Their continued sale violates the Food and Drug Administration Act of 2009,” she added.
“The other brands have not been recalled yet and should be recalled now for the safety of cosmetic consumers,” she pleaded.
Visiting Chicago-based scientist Dr. Joe DiGangi tested the skin whitening products bought by the EcoWaste Coalition using the X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) device, a chemical analyzer widely used by private companies and regulatory agencies in the US.
The samples were purchased last July 23, from 2 Chinese drug stores, 1 cosmetics shop and 2 sidewalk vendors all located in Quiapo, Manila. “Mercury is poison that should not be present in consumer products, especially those applied directly to the skin,” said DiGangi, who is the Science and Policy Advisor of IPEN, a global civil society network, which includes the EcoWaste Coalition.
Skin whitening products such as creams, lotions or soaps sometimes contain toxic mercury chloride and/or ammoniated mercury, or hydroquinone, which is also highly toxic.
“Mercury harms the nervous system, the kidneys, and other organ systems,” DiGangi warned.
For her part, Cathy Untalan, Executive Director of Miss Earth Foundation, said: “Mercury in personal care products is dangerous to human health. Consumers should not use cosmetics with mercury or whose ingredients are unsafe and unknown.”
To stop the continued sale of mercury-tainted cosmetics, the EcoWaste Coalition has proposed a multi-stakeholders’ campaign to crack down against unscrupulous importers, distributors and retailers in the interest of consumer safety. The toxic watchdog identified the FDA, Bureau of Customs, Philippine National Police, local government units, consumer protection groups, and the media as key players in keeping the market free of toxic cosmetics.
Among the skin whitening creams that failed the regulatory limit on mercury based on the analysis made the EcoWaste Coalition and IPEN were:
1. Miss Beauty Magic Cream, 28,600 ppm
2. Jiaoli 7-Day Specific Eliminating Freckle AB Set Cream, 12,400 ppm
3. JJJ Magic Spots Removing Cream, 9,610 ppm
4. The Flower Woman 7-Day Whitening and Spot and Night Set Cream, 7,754 ppm
5. Jiaoli Miraculous Cream, 7,665 ppm
6. Sara Glutathione Sheep Placenta Whitening and Anti-Spot Cream, 6,210 ppm
7. Szitang 7-Day Specific Whitening and Spot AB Set Cream, 5,886 ppm
8. Beauty Girl Natural Olive and Sheep Essence 10-Day Double Whitening Cream,
9. Miss Beauty Excellent Therapy Whitening Cream, 2,304 ppm
10. Aichun Beauty Green Tea Whitening Speckle Removing Series Cream, 1,820 ppm
11. Aichun Beauty Whitening Freckle Day and Night Cream, 1,574 ppm