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Skin-lightening creams may contain mercury says EPA

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by Aimee Keenan-Greene
 
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency says beware of toxic metal mercury in several skin lightening creams being sold in the Chicago area. Retailers are being told not to sell skin products if the product is not labeled. The state recommends retailers not sell or distribute any cream or cosmetic that lists ingredients like “mercury,” “mercurio,” “calomel,” or mercury compounds such as “mercurous chloride”.
 
“Because mercury is toxic, skin-lightening creams, soaps and other cosmetics that have mercury in them are prohibited for sale or distribution in Illinois under a state law that went into effect last year,” said state EPA Director Doug Scott.  

The Chicago Tribune recently tested 50-skin lightening creams and found 5 made in Asia, and sold in Chicago, containing mercury. According to the state, recent investigations by public health officials in California, Virginia and New York City also found high levels of mercury in skin lightening creams imported from China, Dominican Republic, India, Mexico and several other countries.   

Mercury or mercury salts is sometimes used as an active ingredient in skin-lightening products to lighten the complexion, or to remove spots and freckles.  Mercury-containing skin products may cause rashes and skin irritation. Mercury may also be absorbed through the skin from prolonged exposure, posing a health risk to the nervous system and kidneys, according to the EPA.
 
The Illinois EPA says any skin-lightening product suspected of containing mercury should be shipped back to the manufacturer, or disposed of as hazardous waste. 
 
Back in 1996 a beauty cream product from Mexico called "Crèma de Belleza-Manning" was linked to mercury, according to eMedicine.
 
Mercury toxicity continues to make headlines in association with eating fish, and recently with the use of dental fillings. 
 
In October the EPA announced it is proposing a rule to reduce mercury waste from dental offices. Dental amalgams, or fillings containing mercury, account for 3.7 tons of mercury discharged from dental offices each year.  The mercury from dental fillings is flushed into chair-side drains and enters the waste water systems, making its way into the environment through discharges to rivers and lakes, incineration or land application of sewage sludge. 
 
Dental offices will be able to use existing technology to meet the proposed requirements. Amalgam separators separate out 95 percent of the mercury normally discharged to local waste treatment plants. Until the rule is final in 2012, the EPA encourages dental offices to voluntarily install amalgam separators. 
 
Half of all mercury entering local waste treatment plants comes from dental amalgam waste. Elemental mercury can change into methylmercury, a highly toxic form that builds up in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish. 

Fish and shellfish are the main sources of methylmercury exposure to humans. Methylmercury can damage a child's developing brain and nervous systems even before they are born, according to the EPA.
 
Another source of mercury concern, immunizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say thimerosal is a mercury-containing preservative used in vaccines starting in the 1930's. In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the US Public Health Service (USPHS), and  vaccine manufacturers agreed to reduce thimerosal or eliminate it in vaccines as a precautionary measure.
 
There is no convincing evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines, except for minor reactions like redness and swelling at the injection site, says the CDC. Other than some flu vaccines, thimerosal has not been used as a preservative in childhood vaccines since 2001.
 
Subsequent investigation has not proven any definite link between this small amount of mercury and any known disease, says WebMD.  
 
Mercury comes into the environment through industry. Coal-burning power plants are responsible for 50 percent of all human-caused mercury emissions.
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