A woman’s years-long beauty regimen caused severe mercury poisoning and irreversible neurological damage, say her doctors in a recent case report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month.
The 47-year woman’s ordeal was detailed in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a clearing house for public health information collected by the CDC from state health departments and local doctors.
According to the report, the Sacramento, California resident sought medical care earlier this July when her arms developed involuntary muscle spasms and became extremely weak. Over the next two weeks, she deteriorated further and was unable to walk, speak and see normally, which led to her hospitalization. In the hospital, she experienced delirium, a state of serious mental confusion.
Two weeks into her hospitalization, blood test results showed that she had incredibly high mercury levels. Her blood contained more than 1,000 times the level of mercury compared to the average person. Interviews with her family soon after revealed that the Mexican American woman had been using skin whitening creams brought back from Mexico for at least seven years.
Mercury has long been popular as an ingredient in whitening creams because it can stop skin cells from producing melanin. But its toxicity eventually led countries across the world to ban or strictly restrict its use in cosmetic products, including the U.S. Yet companies in Mexico as well as many other countries still routinely add mercury to their skin creams.
The woman’s ordeal was all the more tragic, however, because her cream was found to have organic mercury, rather than the inorganic mercury typically added to these products. Organic mercury is more toxic to the human body in smaller doses, especially to the brain, and victims are much less likely to recover once neurological symptoms have appeared. These symptoms, as in the woman’s case, can take months to years of exposure to manifest.
That isn’t to say skin care products made with inorganic mercury are safe either. They’ve been linked to kidney damage, skin rashes, scarring, as well as depression and psychosis. But inorganic mercury is easier to clear through chelation therapy, a technique to pull out toxic metals like both organic and inorganic mercury from the body.
In this case, doctors began chelation as soon as they discovered mercury in her blood. But despite prolonged chelation therapy, the authors wrote, the woman hasn’t regained the ability to talk and she is unable to “care for herself, requiring ongoing tube feeding for nutritional support.”
According to the authors, this is the first case of organic mercury poisoning linked to skin whitening creams ever documented, and the first case of poisoning tied to a particular form of organic mercury called methylmercury seen in the U.S. in nearly a half century.
The original source of the organic mercury in the woman’s skin cream is still unknown, the authors wrote, but California health officials are testing samples of other skin whitening creams for mercury. They’re also “investigating the case of a family member with likely exposure but less severe illness.”