Whether you are visiting a super-store, a huge shopping mall or just a small store near your house, you will easily find skin whitening cosmetics manufactured by various popular brands, including multinational companies, such as Unilever. But, are you aware, these skin whitening cosmetics contain mercury, a highly toxic chemical that may cause serious damage to your skin and may cause neurological complications and even cancer? Those popular manufacturers and multinational national companies are selling skin whitening cosmetics in open defiance of the global efforts to make these hazardous products a thing of the past.
It may be mentioned here that under 2020 UN convention named Minamata Convention on Mercury, skin whitening cosmetics were supposed to be phased-out. But, unscrupulous manufacturers and traders of these cosmetics are dodging international convention and selling these items to customers.
More about dangerous effect of whitening cosmetics
Antonio Guterres in a statement describing the danger of whitening cosmetics said: In 1956, two sisters, aged two and five, were diagnosed in Minamata Bay, Japan, with the crippling, untreatable and stigmatizing effects of mercury poisoning. In the decades that followed, their story would be retold many times, becoming synonymous with the tens of thousands of adults, children and unborn infants to suffer from what is now known as Minamata disease.
Unfortunately, it is a story that we still need to tell because, decades on, too many people still think of mercury simply as a fascinating element safely contained in thermometers. Too few understand that it is lethal, indestructible and present in everything from coal-fired power generation to certain mascaras and fluorescent lights. Likewise, too many are unaware that just a fraction of the 130,000 chemicals and other substances on the market are properly assessed, labelled and tracked. Even fewer suspect that items as mundane as pizza boxes, microwave popcorn or electronic waste pollute our air, land, water, food chains and ecosystems for generations. It still takes far too long to identify, accept and act on such risks to human health.
We need to reinforce the right of scientists to pursue their work for the greater good and for medical experts and citizens to access that knowledge easily. And we need to insist on the right and responsibility of judiciaries and governments to act on such knowledge and the right of the media to report on the outcomes and implications of all these efforts. These are basic rights highlighted by the tragic past and optimistic future that the Minamata Convention symbolizes.
Like so many contaminants, mercury doesn’t just damage individual victims. It damages entire communities. It fuels poverty, feeds conflict and pushes equality further out of reach. Take the example of a young mother working as an artisanal gold miner. While she is poisoned from handling mercury at work, countless others, including her children, are harmed by its impact on the environment.
The Minamata Convention is our chance to break that cycle of misery. It represents an opportunity to not only improve the health of people around the world, but to accelerate the transition to a fairer, greener economy. People can benefit from technology that offers safer, more effective alternatives for communities to build a more stable, sustainable future. The legal waste market, which is already worth $400 billion a year, can create more jobs to securely handle the 90 per cent of electronic waste currently left to pollute our health and our environment. Quite simply, the potential benefits are enormous.
UN global assessment of mercury
In 2001, the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme1 (UNEP) invited the Executive Director of UNEP to undertake a global assessment of mercury and its compounds, including information on the chemistry and health effects, sources, long-range transport, and prevention and control technologies relating to mercury. In 2003, the Governing Council considered this assessment and found that there was sufficient evidence of significant global adverse impacts from mercury and its compounds to warrant further international action to reduce the risks to human health and the environment from the release of mercury and its compounds to the environment. Governments were urged to adopt goals for the reduction of mercury emissions and releases and UNEP initiated technical assistance and capacity building activities to meet these goals.
Mercury is recognized as a substance producing significant adverse neurological and other health effects, with particular concerns expressed about its harmful effects on infants and unborn children. The global transport of mercury in the environment was a key reason for taking the decision that global action to address the problem of mercury pollution was required. A mercury programme to address these concerns was thus established and was further strengthened by governments in decisions of the Governing Council in 2005 and in 2007. In the decision of 2007, the Governing Council concluded that the options of enhanced voluntary measures and new or existing international legal instruments would be reviewed and assessed in order to make progress in addressing the mercury issue.
In 2009, following extensive consideration of the issue, the Governing Council agreed that voluntary actions had not been sufficient to address the concerns on mercury, and decided on the need for further action on mercury, including the preparation of a global legally binding instrument. An intergovernmental negotiating committee to prepare a global legally binding instrument on mercury was therefore established, to commence its work in 2010 and conclude its negotiations prior to the twenty-seventh session of the Governing Council in 2013. The committee was provided with a detailed mandate setting out specific issues to be covered in the text of the instrument, as well as a number of other elements to be taken into account while negotiating the text.
In January 2013, the intergovernmental negotiating committee concluded its fifth session by agreeing on the text of the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The text was adopted by the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on 10 October 2013 in Japan and was opened for signature for one year until 9 October 2014. During this period, it was signed by 127 states and one regional economic integration organization, bringing to 128 the total number of signatories.
Despite the 2020 phase-out for such cosmetics under the Minamata Convention on Mercury, traders continue to flout the laws with impunity, observed the toxics watchdog group EcoWaste Coalition.
“Our latest market investigation covering nine cities from Baguio to Davao shows blatant trade in smuggled cosmetics, particularly facial creams, with undisclosed mercury content as high as 30,410 parts per million (ppm)”, said Aileen Lucero, National Coordinator, EcoWaste Coalition.
“Companies target and lure consumers into buying these facial creams with the promise that using these so-called skincare products will lighten the skin tone, get rid of dark spots, and fight aging”, she said.
Women are the main target of these hazardous cosmetics and are also the most vulnerable to the toxic effects of mercury exposure, especially if they are of child-bearing age.
The Minamata Convention, which entered into force in August 2017, has set a 2020 phase-out deadline for the manufacture, import and export of mercury-added products, including skin-lightening creams and soaps with mercury above one ppm, which is also the limit for mercury as a contaminant in the ASEAN Cosmetic Directive.
Test buys conducted by the group from March 27 to April 27 collected 44 facial creams sold for P62 to 250 each at cosmetic, general merchandise and Chinese drug stores operating in Baguio, Tarlac, Angeles, Mabalacat, Manila, Pasay, Pasig, Antipolo and Davao Cities. Except for one, the products have been flagged by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for containing mercury and/or for lacking the required Certificate of Product Notification (CPN).
The products were then screened for mercury using an Olympus Vanta M Series X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer, which detected high levels of mercury in 42 out of 44 samples.
Among the 42 skincare products found to contain mercury were Goree, Jiaoli and S’Zitang products that are available in different variants, as well as Collagen Plus Vit E Day & Night Cream, Golden Pearl Beauty Cream, and Feique Herbal Extract Whitening Anti-Freckle Set, which came from China, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Marked “made in Pakistan” on the label, samples of Goree Beauty Cream with Lycopene and Goree Day & Night Beauty Cream were found to contain the highest concentrations of mercury ranging from 26,250 to 30,410 ppm.
The FDA through Advisory No. 2017-289 has warned the public against the purchase and use of these Goree products.
According to the said advisory: “Adverse health effects brought about by highly toxic mercury in cosmetic products include kidney damage, skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring. Chronic use reduces the skin’s normal resistance against bacterial and fungal infections. Other effects include anxiety, depression or psychosis and peripheral neuropathy.” The FDA further warned: “The transfer of mercury to fetuses of pregnant women may manifest as neurodevelopmental deficits later in life”.
The use of mercury in cosmetics can result in mercury releases during production, normal product use and disposal, the EcoWaste Coalition also pointed out.
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