NEW YORK CITY - January 27, 2005 - Following a confirmed case of mercury poisoning in a New York City resident who had been using an imported "skin-lightening" cream, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) today warned against the use of similar creams, soaps and other cosmetic products which contain mercury. DOHMH is investigating the availability of these products in City stores and is working with the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test certain creams and other products for mercury content.
The person identified with mercury poisoning used a product called Recetas de la Farmacia - Crema Blanqueadora, which is manufactured in the Dominican Republic and is advertised for use for "skin-lightening," and to treat acne and skin blemishes; it was purchased in the Dominican Republic. Government officials in that country are working closely with DOHMH to halt the manufacture and distribution of these products.
The person was a participant in DOHMH's New York City Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NYC HANES) and was identified because of testing done in that survey. The product she used contains a type of mercury that is easily absorbed through the skin. While the FDA limit for mercury is 1 part per million (ppm); the tested sample contained more than 6,000 parts per million (ppm) of mercury. The patient remains under medical observation.
Subsequent investigations of product availability by DOHMH, as well as by a physician from Columbia University Medical Center, turned up skin-lightening soaps and creams at stores in the Bronx, Queens and northern Manhattan. The products, made in the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong and China, were either not labeled properly (apart from identifying it as a skin-lightening product) or listed mercury as an ingredient: products that use mercury as a skin-bleaching ingredient are considered adulterated under the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and are thus illegal to sell under the City's Health Code.
"Before using any cosmetic product, New Yorkers should make sure the ingredients are printed on the product's box or container, as required under federal law," said DOHMH Commissioner Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH. "We urge New Yorkers not to use imported products if there are no ingredients on the label, or if a product lists mercury as an ingredient. Mercury is poisonous and can cause severe damage to the nervous system. It also causes birth defects. If you have used these products and have symptoms of mercury poisoning such as irritability, tremors, or memory loss, see a physician immediately and get tested for mercury poisoning."
Commissioner Frieden added: "Consumers can also call 311 to report sales of these products at your local store and the Health Department will investigate; storeowners who have stocked these products should call 311 to have these products safely retrieved by the DOHMH."
Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Guillermo Linares said, "While many of us have a preference for using certain cosmetics, no one should use products with mercury or unlabeled ingredients. I urge consumers, store owners and community networks to quickly alert immigrants and other New Yorkers about this hazard."
Direct and prolonged exposure to mercury can cause damage to the brain, nervous system and kidneys. Using products containing mercury can also result in skin rashes, irritation, and other changes to the skin. Mercury is also extremely toxic to unborn children, and while pregnant women who use these creams may not experience symptoms of mercury poisoning, the fetuses could become severely poisoned, resulting in brain damage and other malformations.
Despite the health risks, so-called "skin-lightening" products that contain mercury are used in many parts of the world, and many are illegally imported into the United States. As part of its continuing investigation, DOHMH has identified five products labeled as containing mercury, manufactured in the Dominican Republic and sold in New York City stores. In addition, the Health Department has also identified six other products, made in Hong Kong, China and the Dominican Republic: none of these products were labeled in accordance with federal regulations. DOHMH has forwarded these products to the FDA for testing. The items below list mercury among their ingredients: New Yorkers who find them (and other unlabeled products) being sold in stores are urged to call 311 to report their sale:
- Recetas de la Farmacia Normal - Crema Blanqueadora (front label and ingredient detail pictured below)
- Miss Key Crema Blanqueadora
- Santa Cream
- Dermaline Skin Cream
Recommendations for New Yorkers Who Have Mercury-Containing or Unlabeled Cosmetic Products At Home:
- Immediately stop all use of "skin-lightening" or other products that are labeled as containing mercury;
- Immediately stop all use of "skin-lightening" or other products that do not have ingredients printed on the packaging;
- Seal the product in a plastic bag and discard with the household trash;
- Thoroughly wash hands and any other exposed body parts that have come in contact with the product(s);
- If you have used, or suspect that you have used these products, contact your medical provider to discuss testing your urine for mercury. You may also contact the New York City Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222 if you believe that you are experiencing symptoms of mercury poisoning;
- Call 311 to report products that contain mercury or stores that are selling these products.
Recommendations for storeowners:
- Soaps and creams that have mercury added to them are prohibited for sale in the United States. Immediately remove soaps and creams containing mercury from shelves and inventory;
- Call 311 to have DOHMH remove the product from your store. DO NOT dispose of it along with regular trash;
- Inform your customers to discontinue use of mercury-containing soaps and creams.