California health officials are renewing their warnings against certain skin creams from Mexico that contain dangerously high levels of mercury.
After a new batch of mercury-tainted creams was discovered recently in a Ventura County flea market, state Department of Public Health officials are reminding consumers everywhere to avoid them.
The face creams – offered to treat acne or lighten freckles and age spots – are often sold in California flea markets, on eBay or purchased while traveling south of the border. They have names such as La Tia Mana but sometimes are unlabeled.
“It can be pretty serious,” said Dr. Timur Durrani, a University of California, San Francisco, toxicologist in the pediatric environmental health division. He said California has seen a number of cases in recent years of women, infants and teens seriously sickened by mercury-tainted skin creams.
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Mercury is used in face creams from Mexico and South America because “the people who are making (them) know that it works. But it also has a pretty rough side effect.”
For more than a decade, federal and state health officials in the U.S. have warned against mercury-laden skin creams. According to federal standards, such creams cannot be legally sold if they contain more than 1 part per million of mercury. In California, some of the skin creams that were tested contained 210,000 ppm, according to public health officials.
All of skin creams that were found to be contaminated came from Mexico, state officials said. Many of the creams are light in color but turn dark green or gray after exposure to light, according to health officials.
“A lot of our patients travel back and forth to Mexico, and they often go get medications,” which are far less regulated, more widely available and less expensive than in California, said Dr. Melissa Marshall, chief medical officer for CommuniCare Health Centers, which serves mainly low-income Hispanic patients in Davis, Woodland and West Sacramento. “So I imagine you could buy something like that from a little bodega. The patient probably considers it a cosmetic, not a pharmaceutical, so they might not even think of it as a health risk.”
Nationwide, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued alerts on skin creams manufactured in other countries and sold in shops catering to Latino, Asian, African or Middle Eastern communities. In recent years, cases of elevated mercury levels in people using the skin products have occurred in Texas, Virginia, Maryland, New York and elsewhere, according to the FDA.
Mercury poisoning can lead to neurological damage in infants and harm the brain, heart, kidneys and lungs of adults. Symptoms include irritability, nervousness, fatigue, tremors, weakness, difficulty concentrating or remembering, and tingling or numbness in hands, feet or around the mouth.
Using contaminated face creams can affect not only the person applying the cream, but anyone in the household, say health experts. Children and infants can be exposed by touching the cream on an adult’s face, then putting their fingers in their mouth. The mercury can also be transferred to clothes, bedding, furniture or other surfaces and then released into the air. “People – particularly children – can get mercury in their bodies from breathing in mercury vapors” if someone in the household is using tainted skin creams, the FDA said in a 2012 warning.
The results can be severe. In one California case in 2013, a 16-year-old was using an acne cream for six weeks when he began experiencing symptoms of mercury poisoning, including weakness in his legs and involuntary muscle twitching, according to state health reports. The symptoms progressed to delirium, irregular heart beats and other impairments. The teen was hospitalized for more than a month, and 11 of his family members were also affected by mercury exposure. Almost all of the family’s furniture and personal belongings had to be discarded.
In 2014, a 20-month-old California baby was diagnosed with mercury poisoning after developing hypertension, refusing to walk, irritability, difficulty sleeping and requiring a nasogastric tube for poor appetite, according to state health officials. The baby, whose mother used a skin-lightening cream from Mexico found to contain 38,000 ppm of mercury, was most likely exposed through physical contact or from contaminated household items. By tracking friends who also used the cream, an additional six households with 40 individuals, half of whom were children, were also found to be exposed to mercury.
In the Bay Area, a pregnant Latino woman was found to have found alarmingly high blood levels of mercury – 15 times higher than normal, according to a UC San Francisco report. A subsequent check of her home found two containers of face cream, purchased at a small-town pharmacy in the Mexican state of Michoacán that emitted mercury vapors in her bathroom more than 5,000 times acceptable levels.
Consumers who observe such products being sold are encouraged to call the state’s toll-free Food and Drug Branch complaint hotline at 800-495-3232. If you believe you’ve been sickened by one of these products, contact your health provider.
To protect yourself, state officials advise checking the label on skin creams for the words mercurous chloride, calomel, mercurio, mercuric or mercury. If the container doesn’t have a label or no ingredients are listed, do not use the product. If you suspect a skin cream contains mercury, seal it in a plastic bag, mark it “mercury” and dispose of it through a local hazardous waste program. For details, contact the California Poison Control System at 800-222-1222 or the California Safe Cosmetics Program hotline at 877-325-3223.