The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers against the use of products which contain mercury.
In the Philippines and elsewhere, these items are sold as skin whiteners and anti-aging creams.
Dr. Charles Lee, senior medical advisor at the FDA said, "Exposure to mercury can have serious health consequences. It can damage the kidneys and the nervous system and interfere with the development of the brain in unborn children and very young children."
"You don't have to use the product yourself to be affected,” said FDA toxicologist, Dr. Mike Bolger.
Kids can breathe in mercury vapors
Especially among children, mercury can get into their bodies from breathing in mercury vapors if a member of the household uses a skin cream containing mercury.
Infants and small children can ingest mercury if they touch their parents who have used these products, get cream on their hands and then put their hands into their mouth. "
One health official from the FDA examined samples of one improperly labeled skin whitening product and found that it contained 130,000 times the acceptable levels of mercury.
How to know you’ve been poisoned
The signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning include:
· mood swings, nervousness, irritability, emotional changes
· abnormal sensations like tingling of hands, feet and around the mouth
· muscle twitching
· muscle weakness
· muscle wasting
· decreased mental function and loss of coordination
· kidney malfunction
· respiratory failure, which can lead to death
Sadly, some patients who visit their doctors with these symptoms do not know they have been exposed to mercury. Therefore, physicians start treating them for other conditions like Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), dementia or multiple sclerosis (MS) which have exactly the same symptoms as mercury poisoning.
How to protect yourself
1. Read the label on all your skin products. If you find the following words: “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio” or “mercury,” STOP using the product.
2. If there is no label, then do not use the product. The law requires that the ingredients of all drugs and cosmetics should be listed on the label.
3. Always wash your hands thoroughly after applying any skin product.
4. Before throwing out any suspicious item, seal it in a plastic bag or container. These products may leak into the soil of the garbage dump and eventually drain into our water system.
5. Have a mercury test done. The normal levels of mercury levels are less than 10 micrograms/liter in the blood and less than 20 micrograms/liter in the urine. Before you get tested (at High Precision Lab, it costs P1,650), make sure you refrain from eating fish 5 days before your scheduled test to avoid a false positive result. Seafood has high levels of mercury.
If you suspect that you have mercury poisoning, see a toxicologist or a neurologist.
There's a safer way to fairer skin than skin whiteners—stay out of the sun!
Dr. Diana Sarmiento is a mother of three, part-time doctor, and a full-time wife and mother. The topics closest to her heart are women’s health, parenting, and any new information that she can get her hands on. Read more on her personal blog, Filipina M.D.