Mercury contamination is widespread among skin-lightening and anti-aging creams sold on online platforms like eBay, Alibaba and Amazon, according to a new analysis of hundreds of products.
The Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) tested 271 products purchased in 15 countries over a 13-month period and found nearly half were contaminated with the dangerous heavy metal at levels above 1 part per million (ppm), the legal limit in the United States. . The EU, meanwhile, does not allow any mercury in cosmetics.
“It is truly concerning that these online manufacturers continue to sell, display and profit from illegal products that cause significant harm to consumers,” said Michael Bender, international coordinator of the Mercury Policy Project.
Mercury is used as a skin bleaching agent because it blocks the production of melanin, which gives skin color, and it can be used to remove spots, freckles, blemishes, and wrinkles. Some analysts expect sales of skin lightening products to reach nearly $12 billion worldwide by 2026, ZMWG said.
Mercury poisoning can cause significant injuries, including skin rashes, kidney disease, and nervous system damage. In 2019, a California woman who used mercury-contaminated skin lightening products fell into a coma.
The ZMWG, which is an international coalition of more than 110 public health advocacy groups, has detected levels as high as 65,000 ppm.
“We don’t find 1 ppm – we find products that are hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of times above [1ppm]”Bender said. “These levels are astronomical.”
Most of the contaminated products were not made by major American or European brands, but were found in Pakistani, Mexican, Chinese and Thai brands sometimes popular in these regions.
The most recent analysis builds on three previous rounds of testing by ZMWG. After previous tests, some brands reportedly pulled contaminated lots from shelves, but the most recent study found that many of the same companies were still selling mercury-contaminated products.
“Seeing the high result is like ‘here we go again,’ because it’s the same marks over and over again,” said Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, international coordinator with ZMWG. In some cases, the products are simply made in someone’s home, she added, making it difficult for authorities to find the operation and shut it down.
In a statement to the Guardian, Amazon said it had removed the products in question and had “proactive measures in place to prevent suspicious or non-compliant products from being listed.”
The report comes as public health advocates and e-commerce platforms tussle over responsibility. Companies like Amazon have generally claimed that third-party vendors using its site are responsible for product security, because Amazon and similar companies simply provide a platform.
Companies are “escaping their responsibilities,” Bender said.
“They knowingly profit from the illegal trade in highly toxic products,” he charged.
That issue plays out in a California court, where a lawsuit against Amazon alleged that the company violated the Toxic Enforcement Act, or Proposition 65, because it sold mercury-contaminated skin lightening creams.
A lower court sided with Amazon, but the California Court of Appeals ruled last week that the company must warn consumers when they or their third-party vendors sell products contaminated with mercury or other products containing dangerous toxins.
Bender called it a victory that marked a shift in the jurisprudence of protecting e-commerce sites from liability, but noted that the ruling only applies to products sold in California when national and global strategies are needed. .
“These individual court cases will not resolve these issues,” Bender added.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration late last year issued an import warning on skin-lightening products, but advocates say the agency has limited authority and resources. The Environmental Working Group, part of the ZMWG coalition, noted that the cosmetics section of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was last updated in 1938 and should be modernized.
Perhaps the most promising development is the Minamata Convention, a recent global treaty in which signatories must prohibit the manufacture, import or export of cosmetics containing more than 1 ppm of mercury.
“He’s the game changer,” Bender said. “We really need international cooperation.”