FDA Urged to Step Up Drive vs Mercury-Tainted Cosmetics

Quezon City. The designation of renowned toxicologist Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go as head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has buoyed up expectations for tougher action to rid the market of dangerous cosmetics.

Through a letter sent to the new FDA chief, the EcoWaste Coalition lauded his appointment and expressed hope that the agency will further strengthen itself towards becoming a “center of regulatory excellence” dedicated to protecting the public health under his watch.

“As a toxics watchdog, we take it as our duty to provide your office with some insights and suggestions as to how the FDA can reinforce its ongoing work to curb, if not eradicate, the unlawful sale of skin whitening creams containing dangerous amounts of mercury,” wrote Edwin Alejo, Coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition.

“We are keen to continue our collaboration with the FDA towards attaining our people’s right and hope for a healthy and toxics-free society,” he added.

The letter was signed by 20 environment and health advocates, including film actor Roy Alvarez, Miss Earth Philippines titlist Cathy Untalan, educator Dean Antonio La Viña, environmental lawyer Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, pulmonologist Dr. Maricar Limpin, breastfeeding champion Ines Fernandez, climate defender Dr. Helen Mendoza, toxics campaigner Beau Baconguis, community leader Noli Abinales, Rotarian Romy Hidalgo, Ang NARS president Dr. Leah Primitiva Samaco-Paquiz and zero waste proponent Sonia Mendoza.

Through the letter, they drew Dr. Go’s attention to the continued sale of mercury-laden skin whitening products and the apparent need for a more effective strategy to deal with this preventable health menace.

Out of the 50 brands of skin whitening creams that the FDA had so far banned for containing excessive levels of mercury, the EcoWaste Coalition managed to buy over a dozen of the various proscribed cosmetics in several test buys conducted this year.

They also told Dr. Go that the EcoWaste Coalition had detected high concentrations of mercury in more than 20 brands that the FDA has yet to recall, including 14 products confirmed by the FDA last July 25 as containing mercury up to 63,516 parts per million (ppm), way above the 1 ppm allowable limit.

The mercury-laced skin whitening creams are being sold in some Chinese drug stores, beauty product shops, food and herbal supplements booths as well as in some stalls of ambulant vendors, they said.

They presented a 15-point proposal to Dr. Go to stop the illegal trade of mercury-laden skin whitening creams, stressing the need for all stakeholders to get involved, including the FDA, customs and police authorities, local government units, health, wellness and beauty associations, the management of shopping malls, the mass media and the civil society.

One specific proposal was for the FDA to either initiate or back a “Brown is Beautiful” campaign that will promote acceptance and pride in our natural skin tone.

Vice President Jejomar Binay who in 2011 said “we are brown and we should be proud (of it)” will be a good champion for such an advocacy, they noted.

Here is the full list of civil society recommendations to the FDA as the lead regulatory agency for cosmetics:

1. Issue timely health and recall advisories as frequent as may be deemed necessary to forewarn consumers against mercury exposure from certain skin whitening products, including those that have not gone through the required notification process with FDA.

2. Improve the content and delivery of the FDA health and recall advisories such as by providing photographs of the banned products.

3. Publish a paid advertisement in one broadsheet and at least two tabloids of national circulation warning the general public about all the banned products with accompanying photos.

4. Maximize the use of conventional broadcast and print media as well as new media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter and other social networking tools) to ensure that the message reaches through the target sector/s, particularly cosmetics consumers and vendors.

5. Provide a hotline that concerned citizens, including vendors and consumers, can contact to obtain information or clarification about banned cosmetics.

6. Issue a more in-depth Health Alert that will provide information about the hazards of mercury in cosmetics, signs and symptoms of mercury poisoning, medical remedies, disposal of mercury-containing products, etc.

7. Publish a consumer information material (e.g., a simplified, illustrated version of the Health Alert) that will inform users about the health and environmental risks posed by mercury-containing cosmetics for wider distribution and consumption.

8. Encourage victims of mercury exposure from skin whitening products to come forward and tell their stories in appropriate venues.

9. Designate a “No Mercury in Cosmetics” awareness-raising day or any appropriate event to drum up public interest and alertness about this toxic health threat. A potential date is August 4 of every year to mark the issuance of the landmark FDA Advisory 2011-012 banning a total of 50 mercury-laden skin whitening products.

10. Spearhead or support a “Brown is Beautiful” campaign that will encourage Filipinos to be proud of our beautiful, natural complexion.

11. Actively promote and support city or municipal ordinances prohibiting the importation, distribution, sale and use of mercury-containing cosmetics.

12. Forge an agreement with the Bureau of Customs for a more stringent control on the entry of contraband cosmetics such as skin whitening creams.

13. Conduct a series of law enforcement activities, including on-the-spot confiscation of contraband items and preventive closure of business establishments, to rid the market of illegal skin lightening cosmetics, and to demonstrate FDA’s conviction and firmness to enforce the law.

14. Forge Memoranda of Agreement (MOAs) with the management of shopping malls to secure their cooperation in preventing the distribution and sale of banned cosmetics by shop owners in their premises.

15. Work out an arrangement with FDAs or equivalent regulatory bodies in other jurisdictions suspected as sources of imported mercury-laced cosmetics such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. to prevent export of such tainted goods to the Philippines.