The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is broadening its investigation of mercury in skin-lightening creams after more than a dozen people using products in California and Virginia were found to have elevated levels of the toxic metal.
State and federal health officials linked the people's mercury levels to homemade skin lightening creams imported from Mexico.
In response to the Tribune's findings, the agency said it alerted its district offices about potentially hazardous products and would take enforcement action if necessary.
Agency spokesman Ira Allen said on Friday that problems in California and Virginia give enforcement officers more products to follow up on.
Health officials in Californai found a family using skin lightening creams from Mexico had developed elevated mercury levels. Relatives and friends in other parts of California and in Virginia were using the creams, too.
Even some children in the families showed high mercury amounts. One child was using the cream for acne, while other children were exposed to mercury after being touched by adults who had the creams on their hands, health officials said.
One woman in California reported symptoms associated with mercury poisoning, including numbness in her fingers, dizziness and forgetfulness, said Dr. Rick Kreutzer of the California Department of Public Health.
Mercury, a known toxin, is banned in skin-bleaching or lightening creams. The products are used to lighten complexions, eliminate age spots or diminish freckles. Mercury is sometimes illegally added to creams because the metal blocks production of melanin, which gives skin its pigmentation. Mercury is rapidly absorbed through the skin and can cause severe health effects, including neurological and kidney damage.
In its investigation, the Tribune sent 50 creams to a certified lab for testing. Six of the creams were found to contain amounts of mercury banned by federal law. Of those, five had more than 6,000 parts per million of mercury -- enough to potentially cause kidney damage over time, according to a medical expert.
The story spurred international reaction as well. In the Philippines, EcoWaste Coalition, a public interest environmental organization urged the country's Food and Drug Administration to test products for mercury and other chemicals. After the Tribune's report, the group scoured store shelves and found one product that the newspaper had identified as tainted with mercury.
The group also found some creams that it said had previously been banned in the Philippines.