Some of the creams collected and analyzed by California medical officials contained mercury levels 20,000 to 56,000 parts per million. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows only trace levels of mercury in creams, or less than 1 part per million.
Latinas, Asians and Filipinas were the predominant users of the creams in California, Das said. For some members of those cultures, traditionally darker skinned people were the laborers who worked outside in the sun, she said, while lighter skin was often considered a symbol of higher social status and wealth.
The family in Alameda used unlabeled face cream in a white plastic jar that was produced in Jalisco or Michoacan, Mexico. They got the cream from a relative in Virginia who has been purchasing the jars from an individual in Mexico.
The highest mercury levels were in the woman and her 4-year-old child. The woman had 100 times the safe level.
The California Department of Public Health advisory said the woman experienced mild to moderate symptoms of tingling in her hands and lips, dizziness, forgetfulness, headaches, depression and irritability and anxiety.
Her 4-year-old child, whose mercury levels were 25 times higher than normal, appeared to have no serious symptoms. Investigators determined the woman used the cream twice a day and her husband once a day for about three years to fade freckles and age spots.
The CDC says inorganic mercury can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin; then excreted in urine, sweat and breast milk. The half-life of inorganic mercury is one to two months, so mercury levels can increase with repeated application of the creams.
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