Tuesday, September 30, 2008

NYC HEALTH: Health Department Targets Deadly Cosmetics

By Heather J. Chin
September 25, 2008
(originally published at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism blogs)

New York – City health officials stepped up their efforts to alert residents that some imported cosmetics threaten them with lead and mercury poisoning.

While federal and state standards already prohibit lethal cosmetics from entering the country, consumer demand keeps the supply steady, according to officials at the Board of Health during their quarterly meeting on Wednesday.

“The problem with global … products [is] that they are falling through the cracks,” said Dr. Nancy Clark, Assistant Commissioner of the department’s Bureau of Environmental Disease Prevention.

Specific deodorants, skin creams, aphrodisiacs and herbal remedies used by residents of Dominican, Indian and Chinese communities are on the list of products with poisonous ingredients. These cosmetics are imported from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

Tests done by NYC’s health department and by others around the country have shown these products to have lead and mercury levels as much as 6,000 times higher than limits recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA limit for lead levels is 10 parts per million; for mercury, it is 1 part per million.

At last month’s meeting, the board authorized the health department to find and remove dangerous cosmetics from store shelves, just as tainted food or drugs are.

These tools will come in the form of signs and fact sheets in the languages spoken by consumers, explained Ms. Paromita Hore, a risk assessment coordinator. “They’re often not aware” of the danger, she said, adding that use of the unhealthy products “is longstanding in their culture.”

At least in the Chinese community, such awareness efforts are welcome, says Gary Lee, the owner of a pharmacy in Chinatown that offers both U.S. name brands and popular Chinese medicines and herbs.

“[Officials] usually want to put pressure on the importer, not putting pressure on the shop,” he said. He notes that if a store has non-FDA approved drugs in stock, it is because they sell. “What [the consumer] wants, they make a request.”

For Indian Americans, kohl and surma – two skin products listed by the Health Department as being laced with high levels of lead – pose a great threat because they are so embedded in the culture.

“Loving kohl is one of the commandments for being desi,” writes Anu, an Indian American freelance writer on her blog, The Indian Make-Up Diva.

When ingested or absorbed through the skin, high levels of lead and mercury can pose a danger to brain function, as well as to blood and renal system function. These effects are particularly dangerous in children and pregnant women.

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