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Study: Hmong women at highest risk for mercury poisoning due to diet, skin products

ST. PAUL - Asian women, especially Hmong, are at higher risk of mercury contamination than any other ethnic groups in the Twin Cities, according to a study released Tuesday, April 23.

The Minnesota Family Environmental Exposure Tracking project measured mercury, lead and cadmium in nearly 400 Twin Cities women and their babies and found that Hmong women had the highest levels of mercury among all participants due to the use of skin-lightening products and fish consumption.

“While selling skin-lightening products with mercury in them is illegal in the U.S., we know that they are widely available,” said Jessica Nelson of the Biomonitoring and Environmental Public Health Tracking program. “Mercury can’t be seen, felt, smelled or tasted in the products, and often isn’t listed on the label, so women and others do not know the products contain mercury.”

Exposure to mercury can cause skin rashes, diarrhea, and respiratory distress, muscle tremors, and personality changes. Long-term exposure in some cases may cause nerve damage, difficulty in walking, or slurred speech.

Young children and babies in the womb are more sensitive to mercury as it affects their developing brains. For that reason, pregnant women and women of childbearing age are cautioned to avoid mercury exposure.

Asian, East African, Latina and white pregnant women participated in the study conducted by researchers at HealthPartners Institute and SoLaHmo/West Side Community Health Services. The study collected and analyzed urine and cord blood samples with the help of staff at Regions and Abbott Northwestern hospitals.

It was funded by public money under the Minnesota Department of Health.

The study looked at two possible sources of mercury contamination: skin lightening beauty products and fish consumption. For Hmong women, whose diets are often high in fish and who use products that bleach the skin, it was a double whammy.

“In some cases, when study partners visited participants in their homes, they found skin-lightening products that were putting mercury into the air that the whole family was breathing,” the health department statement said.

East African women participating in the study had the second-highest levels of mercury in their urine and Latina women were third-highest.

In May 2011 the health department tested a random sample of skin-lightening products and found that some of them contain mercury at levels much higher than what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows in cosmetic products. A list of those products can be found on the MDH website.

The FDA allows cosmetic products to contain only trace amounts of mercury (one part per million). The products MDH tested ranged from 135 to 33,000 parts per million.

Skin lightening products, also called skin brightening or fade products, are used by both dark and light-skinned people to lighten skin tone, fade freckles, or get rid of age spots.

“In addition to sharing information with communities about the dangers of skin-lightening products, MDH and other agencies are working to identify products that have mercury and get them off the shelves,” Nelson said.

As for fish consumption, the health department recommends eating younger fish, fewer predator fish such as walleyes, northern pike, lake trout, and eating fewer fatty fish such as carp and catfish.