Health experts are warning consumers who use skin-whitening products to be on increased alert for the potential effects of mercury poisoning.
According to a CNN report, the woman, who is also a mother, lost her peripheral vision following prolonged use of the creams, and also experienced other adverse conditions including muscle weakness, insomnia and leg pain.
Due to her extensive use of the products, the woman had unintentionally exposed her family members to high levels of mercury, which was found in her children's bedrooms, the home's laundry area, and even in bedding and towels, CNN reported.
"No one intentionally wants to hurt themselves or their family members," Dr. Erin Batdorff, with the Minnesota Poison Control System, told CNN. "But it's out there and you can't see it, you can't smell it. There's no way [for consumers] to know whether [mercury] is in the creams or not because it's not on the labels."
At first, the woman shared with health experts from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) that she had obtained the products abroad; the agency found mercury that was several thousand times higher than permitted levels by the U.S. Federal Drug Agency and the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which is an international treaty whose mission is to protect the environment from mercury.
Cosmetics, with the exception of those used around the eye area, are limited to 1mg/kg of mercury or 1 part per million; the products in the woman's home ranged from 4,590ppm to 18,000 ppm.
Other products that the woman purchased at a local market also contained high levels of mercury, health officials found.
Mercury is used in skin whitening products due to its ability to block melanin, the skin's pigment.
Health experts are hoping for increased awareness about the issue — since the ingredient is not listed on the products — and they are pressing authorities to more stringently enforce regulations.
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The issue is of particular consequence among the Minneapolis area's Somali, Latina and Hmong communities.
"The use of skin-lightening is a now a public health crisis in the Somali community and other communities of color," Amira Adawe, founder and executive director of the Beautywell Project told CNN. "I have met some women that have been using these products 10 to 15 years ...[and] I always get phone calls from individuals who are dealing with the side effects of mercury."