A Sacramento woman was poisoned by a skin-lightening cream, rendering her comatose. Hers was the first case of methylmercury poisoning linked to a skin cream in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
In July, the 47-year-old woman visited a doctor for an odd pricking sensation and arm weakness. When she returned two weeks later with blurry vision and slurred speech, doctors admitted her to a University of California - San Francisco hospital, where her condition rapidly declined into “agitated delirium,” wrote Dr. Paul Blanc of the UCSF Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the California Poison Control System.
Her body contained “abnormally high” levels of methylmercury, he wrote. Methylmercury is highly toxic and can cause permanent nervous system damage.
The CDC report indicates her injuries are likely permanent.
The woman used the toxic cream for years
Her family told health officials she used a skin-lightening cream from Mexico twice daily for the past seven years. She’d purchased the cream – Pond’s Rejuveness from Mexico that had been tainted with methylmercury after its manufacturing – through friends to erase blemishes and wrinkles.
Officials tested the cream and found it contained 12,000 parts per million of methylmercury – a bit over 1.2%. It’s illegal in the US to sell skin creams that contain more than 1 ppm mercury.
“Most harmful skin-lightening creams are intentionally tainted with inorganic mercury,” Blanc said. “But in this case, the patient used a skin-lightening product containing organic mercury, which is far more toxic.”
The harm methylmercury inflicts upon the nervous system often worsens after patients stop using or consuming tainted products, he said.
The woman’s condition continued to deteriorate even after she underwent chelation therapy, a treatment to flush mercury through her urine.
“Central nervous system toxicity, as in this case, is the hallmark of organic mercury – it typically comes on after weeks to months of exposure,” he said. “Once manifested, it quickly progresses and often worsens, despite removal of any further exposure.”
As of the CDC report’s publishing, the patient was still unable to speak or care for herself, relying on a feeding tube for nutrition.
More than 60 poisonings in 10 years
There have been more than 60 poisonings in California over the last decade linked to homemade or unlabeled skin creams, though those all contained a less toxic form of mercury, the California Department of Public Health reported. It’s unusual for creams to contain methylmercury, which more commonly occurs in shellfish.
Most of the tainted creams were purchased “on the street” through family or friends or brought from Mexico, the department said. They’re often packaged in plastic containers without labels or are handmade, and they’re advertised to remove spots, wrinkles and blemishes.
Some of the confiscated creams contained as much as 21% mercury, health officials said.
Mercury poisoning is marked by a wide range of neurological symptoms, including tremors, anxiety, numbness, tingling, and unusually high levels of protein in urine.
The symptoms are more evident in children – their hands and feet turn pink and their skin flakes. They salivate excessively, are irritable and suffer leg cramps and muscle weakness.
Mercury is still potently dangerous through indirect exposure – children and infants were poisoned simply by interacting with family members who had used the mercury-tainted cream.
Avoid creams without foil or clear labels, officials advise
Public health officials advise consumers to check for protective foil under lids of skin creams, purchase creams from well-known retailers and avoid those with homemade labels or without labels at all.
Physicians whose patients use altered or imported skin creams are encouraged to take the products for testing.
The health department compiled a list of mostly imported mercury-tainted creams from across the state. So far, five of the 38 creams have been linked to Sacramento County.