Beware of mercury-tainted skin-whitening products

CONSUMERLINE - Ching M. Alano (The Philippine Star) - October 2, 2017 - 4:00pm

I once covered a press conference where the main resource speaker flew in fresh from the US and was apparently caught in horrific traffic on EDSA on the way to the presscon. He greeted everyone with a big, bright smile and said, “I noticed those big billboards on EDSA mostly advertised whitening creams. Why do Filipinos like to be white? You have such great brown skin you should be proud of it!”

Obviously, brown is not always beautiful. And white, for a lot of Filipinos, is right!

Did you know that some skin-whitening creams are laced with mercury, a toxic chemical? And that some consumer groups have raised the alarm over the continued sale of these dangerous whitening creams?

You probably first learned about mercury at your chemistry class in school, but you really didn’t care as long as you passed the subject. Fact is, mercury is really a very important subject as it affects our everyday lives. For one thing, it’s found in everyday objects, such as batteries, thermometers, vaccines, dental fillings, fluorescent lights, paints, and glass!

Most importantly, take double note that mercury is said to be the most potent toxin known to man that affects the brain in the most harmful way that no other chemical substance can. As it doesn’t break down in the body (or in the environment), it just keeps accumulating. Even trace amounts in pregnant women can cause birth defects.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that “mercury salts in cosmetic products inhibit the formation of melamin in the skin resulting in a lighter skin tone.” But FDA warns consumers, “There have been cases of adverse health effects brought about by highly toxic mercury in cosmetic products, such as kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration, and scarring.”

Thus, it’s alarming to know that skin-whitening products containing mercury continue to find their way to the local market despite the fact that it’s illegal to import, distribute, and sell them.

This expose was made by the EcoWaste Coalition and Laban Konsyumer, Inc. in preparation for the first Conference of Parties (COP1) to the Minamata Convention on Mercury on Sept. 24-29 in Geneva, Switzerland.According to our source, the Minamata Convention, an international treaty, aims “to protect the human health and the environment from anthropogenic releases of mercury and mercury compounds.”  It targets the phase-out of skin-lightening products with mercury above one part per million (ppm), among other things.

Thony Dizon, coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition’s Project Protect, disclosed, “Contraband cosmetics containing mercury continue to be sold in several beauty products and Chinese medicine stores with their importers, distributors, and retailers brazenly doing it with impunity.  Some retailers even give official receipts for illegal purchases.”

Thony added, “While the Minamata Convention sets a 2020 phase-out date for mercury-containing skin lightening creams and soaps, Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, ban mercury in excess of 1 ppm under the heavy metal limits of the ASEAN Cosmetic Directive that were adopted in 2007.”

To stop once and for all the illegal trade of mercury-tainted cosmetics, the EcoWaste Coalition urged the government to crack down on smugglers through effective law enforcement activities. Echoing the call of EcoWaste Coalition is Laban Konsyumer, Inc. who reiterated the right of consumers to be protected against hazards to health and safety as guaranteed by the Consumer Act of the Philippines.

Atty. Victorio Dimagiba, president of Laban Konsyumer, Inc., issued this plea, “We urge the authorities to prosecute those behind the illicit trade of mercury-containing skin whiteners and other cosmetics without the prerequisite product notifications.  Punishing the culprits to the fullest extent of Republic Act 9711 will send a strong message that our country is serious about protecting our consumers against mercury exposure via cosmetic use.”

RA 9711, or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Act, states that any person who violates the law shall, upon conviction, suffer the penalty of imprisonment from one to not more than 10 years or a fine of not less than P50,000 but not more than P500,000.  Stiffer penalties and fines await erring manufacturers, importers or distributors.

So, where are these toxic cosmetics being sold?

To track down the culprits, EcoWaste Coalition conducted test buys on Sept. 16-21 covering 12 cities in Metro Manila and the provinces of Batangas, Bulacan, Laguna, Pampanga, and Rizal.  The group bought the non-notified imported skin-whitening products from Chinese drugstores and  beauty products shops in Angeles, Antipolo, Biñan, Mabalacat, Malolos, Manila, Parañaque, Pasay, Quezon, San Jose del Monte, San Pedro, and Tanauan cities.  Out of 35 products bought at P60 to P240 each and screened for mercury using a special X-Ray Fluorescence device, 33 were found to contain mercury up to 46,000 ppm.

Note that “there is no safe level of mercury,” so stress scientists Mark and David Geier who describe mercury as unique among all toxic substances because the element itself is toxic.

More findings from the tests conducted by EcoWaste Coalition: found to contain over 5,000 ppm of mercury were Yudantang 6-Day Specific Eliminating Freckle Whitening Cream (46,000 ppm), Yudantang  10-Day Specific Eliminating Freckle Spot & Double Whitening Sun Block Cream (38,400 ppm), Parley Herbal Beauty Cream with Avocado (16,200 ppm), Parley Beauty Cream (15,100 ppm), Golden Pearl Beauty Cream (10,500 ppm), Collagen Plus VitE Day & Night Cream (7,662 ppm), and Erna Whitening Cream (5,107 ppm).  

Of the most commonly available imported skin-whitening creams, several variants of Jiaoli and S’Zitang were found to contain mercury ranging from 591 to 4,719 ppm.These toxic cosmetics come from China, Taiwan, and Pakistan. The EcoWaste Coalition and Laban Konsyumer appealed to the governments of China, Taiwan, Pakistan, and others to collaborate with the Philippine authorities to stop the illegal trade.

The country’s ratification of the Minamata Convention should help in promoting closer collaboration between governments in enforcing mercury control measures, including the phase-out of mercury-added products, the groups said.
The FDA has banned over 135 mercury-containing skin-lightening creams since 2010, including  80 brands that were discovered by the EcoWaste Coalition through its periodic market monitoring and chemicals in product analysis.

Just how prevalent this illicit trade is in the Philippines is revealed in the report “Beauty and the Risk” released by EcoWaste Coalition and co-published with IPEN, a global NGO working for safe chemicals policies and practices.

So now we know why white ain’t always right!

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