E-Commerce Giants Under Fire for Retailing Hazardous Mercury-Based Cosmetics

By Thalif Deen
NEW YORK, Nov 16 2018 (IPS)

A coalition of over 50 civil society organizations (CSOs), from
more than 20 countries, have urged two of the world’s largest
multi-billion dollar E-commerce retailers – Amazon and eBay –
to stop marketing “dangerous and illegal mercury-based skin
lightening creams.”

The protest is part of a
coordinated global campaign against a growing health hazard in the
field of cosmetics.

So far, the groups have reached out to the US Food & Drug
Administration (FDA), the United Nations, the World Health
Organization (WHO) and INTERPOL, the Lyon-based international law
enforcement agency whose mandate includes investigating the sale of
illegal health products online.

Michael Bender, International Coordinator of the Zero Mercury
Working Group, told IPS internet moguls must stop breaking the law
with their toxic trade in illegal cosmetics.

“Amazon and eBay have the responsibility and resources to
prevent exposing their customers to this dangerous neurotoxin,”
he added.

At the same time, said Bender, the FDA must enforce the law—
no matter how big the retailer, since no one is above the law.

The CSOs have identified 19 skin products sold by these two
companies that contain illegal mercury levels—even as the use of
these products are skyrocketing globally, and in the US, and used
worldwide mostly by women in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the
Middle East.

In a letter to Jeff Bezos, the chief executive officer (CEO) of
Amazon, the groups say: “We strongly urge Amazon to self-police
its website to ensure that cosmetics found to have mercury levels
over 1 part per million (ppm) are no longer offered for sale to
your customers worldwide.”

Since 1973, the FDA has warned against using cosmetics with over
1ppm mercury and detailed the risks. And mercury is known to state,
federal and international agencies as toxic and harmful to human

In a letter to Devin Newig , president and CEO of eBay, the
groups say the products advertised for sale on the e-Bay website
are “unpermitted and illegal”.

The protest has taken added relevance against the backdrop of
the upcoming second meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the
Minamata Convention on Mercury (COP2) which will take place
November 19-23 in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Minamata Convention is an international treaty which has
been signed by 128 UN member states and ratified by the
legislatures of 101 countries.

Syed Marghub Murshed, Chairperson, Environment and Social
Development Organization-ESDO, said “skin-lightening creams are
pushing the youth towards a serious health risk and environmental

He urged the government to take a regulatory and legislative
step to protect future generations — and the environment.

Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, European Environmental Bureau Project
Manager “Zero Mercury Campaign” and International Co-ordinator,
Zero Mercury Working Group, told IPS that toxic trade in illegal
high mercury skin lighteners is a global crisis which is expected
to only worsen with skyrocketing global demand.

“To combat this, it’s important for governments to quickly
enact and/or enforce regulations and effectively warn consumers”,
he added.

Sonya Lunder of the Sierra Club’s Gender, Equity and
Environment Program, said internet sellers should be held to the
highest standards for selling safe and legal cosmetics.

“Not only should they remove all illegal products from their
websites immediately, but they must develop a system to ensure that
toxic products remain out of their supply-chains,” declared

The WHO says mercury is a common ingredient found in skin
lightening soaps and creams. It is also found in other cosmetics,
such as eye makeup cleansing products and mascara.

“Skin lightening soaps and creams are commonly used in certain
African and Asian nations. They are also used among dark-skinned
populations in Europe and North America.”

In Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Togo, 25%, 77%, 27%,
35% and 59% of women, respectively, are reported to use skin
lightening products on a regular basis, says WHO.

In 2017 and 2018, 338 skin-lightening creams from 22 countries
were collected by 17 NGO partners and tested for mercury, according
to the group.

And 35 creams (10.4% of the samples) had mercury concentrations
ranging from 260 – 16,353 parts per million (ppm).

These levels significantly exceeded not only regulations in many
countries, but also new provisions in the Minamata Convention
disallowing, after 2020, the “manufacture, import or export” of
cosmetics with a mercury above 1 ppm.

The health consequences include damage to the skin, eyes, lungs,
kidneys, digestive, immune and nervous systems.

The Mercury Policy Project, the Sierra Club and the European
Environmental Bureau say they have purchased skin lighteners from
eBay and Amazon websites.

The brands purchased included many previously identified as high
mercury by New York City, the state of Minnesota, countries of the
European Union, Singapore, United Arab Emirates (UAE), the
Philippines, among others.

Of these, 19 products had illegal mercury levels, typically more
than 10,000 times higher than the legal threshold of 1ppm.

In their letters, the groups are calling on Amazon and eBay

(1) Ensure the products they sell comply with government
regulations; monitor lists of toxic skin lighteners identified US
regulators; and keep them out of their inventory; and

(2) Add skin lightening cream products to a list of categories
requiring prior approval before sale; and require that sellers
provide documentation verifying that the products do not contain
mercury and that the products are otherwise compliant with all
applicable regulations.

Out of the 22 countries where the global cosmetics sampling took
place, 14 have legislation or other requirements consistent with
the Minamata convention provisions, the letter says.

Out of the 7 countries where high mercury samples were found,
only 4 have legal requirements prohibiting creams with more than 1
ppm mercury content.

The Zero Mercury testing showed also that in:

–in Bangladesh, 50% of the creams sampled and tested had
mercury content exceeding 1 ppm.

–In the Dominican Republic, one out of 3 samples had mercury
above 1 ppm (33%), whereas in Indonesia it reached 31%.

— in Mauritius, one out of 15 creams was found to contain more
than 1 ppm (7%).

— in the Philippines, 19% of the samples exceeded 1 ppm
mercury content, while the Thai samples reached 63; and.

–in Trinidad and Tobago, 20% of the samples tested also
exceeded the Minamata limits.

The Group’s research demonstrates that hazardous substance
restrictions and accompanying risk communication strategies in many
countries are incomplete and/or inadequately enforced.

”This thereby raises the risk of health effects, primarily to

However, as the Minamata Convention on Mercury provision
pertaining to cosmetics take effect after 2020, new opportunities
for countries to reduce exposure to mercury from skin lighteners
are emerging, including resources that may become available to
Parties for the following, perhaps in collaboration with all levels
of government and civil society:

1. Development and adoption of national government cosmetic

2. Continuously updated global government detention website
listing of product violations, including product photo,
manufacture, country of origin, seller identification, links,

3. Enhanced harmonization and increased enforcement of by custom
officials at borders;

4. Effective risk communication to consumers at risk and in
particular pregnant and nursing mothers and woman of child bearing

5. Effective oversight of the marketplace;

6. Adoption of effective labeling guidelines to assure consumers
are provided with the necessary information on hazardous
substances, but also on alternatives, since they may contain other
hazardous substances;

7. Effective cyber crime oversight of the internet, in global
collaboration with Interpol, (since most lighteners are imported);

8. Through national ad councils, assuring that
non-discriminatory advertising guidelines do not reinforce negative
social stereotyping on the basis of skin color.

Globally, mercury-based products are a big business. Demand is
skyrocketing, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, with
sales of $17.9 billion in 2017, and projected to reach $31.2
billion by 2024, according to Global Industry Analysts.

Skin lightening products — also known as “bleaching
creams,” “whiteners,” “skin brighteners,” or “fading
creams” — work when inorganic Mercury salts (e.g. 1-10%
ammoniated mercury) inhibit the formation of melanin, resulting in
a lighter skin tone.

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E-Commerce Giants Under Fire for Retailing Hazardous Mercury-Based
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Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
E-Commerce Giants Under Fire for Retailing Hazardous Mercury-Based Cosmetics