Letter Sent to Concerned ASEAN Environmental and Health Officials Requesting Action to Stop Illegal Trade of Mercury-Containing Skin Whitening Cosmetics

Dear Friends,

SUBJECT: ASEAN Action to Stop Illegal Trade of Mercury-Containing Skin Whitening Cosmetics

Greetings from the EcoWaste Coalition, an environmental organization in the Philippines that is actively working for chemical safety and zero waste.  We are a participating organization of IPEN, a global civil society network promoting safer chemicals policies and practices that protect human health and the environment.
We write to you as various stakeholders gather in Jakarta, Indonesia on March 17-18, 2015 for the Asia-Pacific regional workshop to support the early ratification and effective implementation of the Minamata Convention on Mercury organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Our organization, with support from IPEN, recently published a report entitled “Beauty and the Risk.” The report documents the results of the three-month market investigation we conducted in 50 cities in the Philippines on the availability of mercury-containing skin whitening cosmetics in the country.  It provides evidence confirming the illegal importation, distribution and sale of skin whitening cosmetics with mercury above the allowable limit of 1 part per million (ppm) under the ASEAN Cosmetics Directive. 
Out of the 355 samples we procured and screened for mercury using an X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) device, 316 (89%) were found to contain mercury many orders of magnitude higher than 1 ppm.   Of these 316 mercury-laden samples, 287 had mercury above 1,000 ppm, 44 had mercury above 5,000 ppm and 19 had extremely high concentrations of mercury topping 25,000 ppm, with one sample having 96,100 ppm of mercury.  Many of these mercury-tainted samples were among the 116 skin whitening products banned by the FDA of the Philippines for containing mercury above the trace amount of 1 ppm or for being sold without the required market authorization from the government.
In the course of our study, we realized that the problem with this illegal trade of mercury-containing skin whitening products affects not only the Philippines, but other members of the ASEAN as well.  Our research shows that the health authorities of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have, on various instances, banned or recalled skin whitening cosmetics for containing mercury and other prohibited substances such as hydroquinone.  Also, we have found products banned in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Norway, Thailand, UK and the US illegally being sold in the domestic market.
We believe that the Philippines cannot solve this problem without the help of the ASEAN and the international community.  As noted in the “Beauty and the Risk” report, “the Philippines acting alone cannot stop the smuggling of mercury-loaded cosmetics into its porous borders. It has to address the problem through bilateral and multilateral initiatives within and outside the ASEAN to put an end to the unlawful trade.”
The ongoing efforts to establish an integrated ASEAN market this year, we further believe, provide a timely opportunity to draw attention to this problem and push for collaborative solution.  Specifically, we ask you to consider initiating an ASEAN-wide action to halt the illegal trade of mercury-containing skin whitening cosmetics, including establishing a rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products such as cosmetics for the guidance of consumers, businessmen and government regulators, including the customs inspectors.
Civil society groups in Indonesia (Balifokus), Malaysia (Consumers Association of Penang) and Thailand (Ecological Alert and Recovery-Thailand) are one with the EcoWaste Coalition in seeking effective action against the illegal trade in mercury-added skin lightening cosmetics nationally and at the ASEAN level.
As designated focal points for the mercury treaty, we request you to please consider our views, relay our concern to your governments and reiterate our call for ASEAN action.
Finally, while Article IV of the treaty provides for the phase-out of skin whitening products with mercury above 1 ppm by 2020, the treaty states that “nothing in this Convention prevents a Party from taking additional domestic measures consistent with the provisions of this Convention.” This means that governments can accelerate the removal from the market of such mercury-laden products if only to protect the public health and the environment from mercury hazards.
Thank you very much and we look forward to your kind action.
Sincerely yours,
Aileen Lucero
Coordinator, EcoWaste Coalition
Unit 329, Eagle Court, 26 Matalino St., 1101 Quezon City, Philippines
Phone/Fax: 632- 4411846