October 24, 2016
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The Chicago Tribune has found that skin-lightening creams sold in Chicago stores contain toxic mercury, a substance banned by the Food and Drug Administration.

The newspaper sent the products to a certified lab for testing, and when it notified sellers of the results, "the retailers said they would pull the products from shelves, and two distributors said they would stop selling them," Ellen Gabler and Sam Roe reported for the Tribune on Tuesday.

The Tribune story began, "Some creams promising to lighten skin, eliminate age spots and zap freckles contain high levels of mercury, a toxic metal that can cause severe health problems, a Tribune investigation has found.

"The newspaper sent 50 skin-lightening creams to a certified lab for testing, most of them bought in Chicago stores and a few ordered online. Six were found to contain amounts of mercury banned by federal law.

"Of those, five had more than 6,000 parts per million — enough to potentially cause kidney damage over time, according to a medical expert.

"The Food and Drug Administration banned mercury in skin-bleaching or lightening products in 1990, but the agency rarely tests the products to see if consumers are at risk. The Tribune's tests — among only a handful ever conducted — show that tainted products are still readily available."

Asked how the Tribune came to do the story, Roe told Journal-isms via e-mail, "The Tribune has tested quite a few products in recent years (mercury in fish, lead in toys, undisclosed allergens in food, etc.). Earlier this year I saw a NYT article that mentioned in passing the possibility of mercury in skin creams, so I thought we should test some to see if it was a problem. I had some background in the hazards of mercury, so the story seemed like a good fit." His story quoted a market researcher's estimate that sales of lightening products in the United States were expected to increase nearly 18 percent by 2015, reaching $76 million annually.

The Times story, by Catherine Saint Louis, noted in January that "Dermatologists nationwide are seeing women of Hispanic and African descent, among others, with severe side effects . . . from the misuse of skin-lightening creams, many with prescription-strength ingredients, which are sold in beauty shops and bodegas and online."

The Tribune noted, "Some people of Asian, Hispanic and African heritage use the creams because lighter skin is often considered a status symbol in their cultures. Many consumers, including Caucasians, use the creams to diminish age spots or to even out skin tone, while others want to lighten their entire face or bodies."

In Chicago, "Consumers can't know for sure which creams are tainted. Stores across the city sell dozens of brands, many of them made overseas. The six creams that tested high in the Tribune tests were manufactured in Lebanon, China, India, Pakistan and Taiwan," the story said.

"The creams were bought at a variety of stores: a large beauty-supply store in the Uptown neighborhood, an herbal medicine shop in Chinatown, an Indian beauty salon on Devon Avenue, a grocery store also on Devon, and a small African shop on 79th Street."

" 'I'm shocked and speechless,' said Dr. Jonith Breadon, a Chicago dermatologist who said she sees patients weekly who ask about lightening their skin. 'I just assumed since (mercury) was banned in the U.S., it never got in. But clearly that isn't true.'

"FDA spokesman Ira Allen said that with fewer than 500 inspectors reviewing imports, the agency cannot check all food, drug and cosmetic products under its jurisdiction. 'It is likely that things get past us,' he said."


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