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News From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
February 11, 2020

Mercury Poisoning From Skin Cream

JAMA. 2020;323(6):500. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.0292

Using a mercury-tainted skin-lightening cream obtained in Mexico left a California woman unable to speak or care for herself, according to a CDC report.

The 47-year-old Mexican American woman sought outpatient medical care last July after developing dysesthesias and upper extremity weakness. She was hospitalized 2 weeks later with slurred speech, blurry vision, and an unsteady gait. In the hospital, she developed agitated delirium. Testing 2 weeks into her hospital stay revealed extraordinarily high mercury levels of 2620 μg/L in blood samples and 110 μg/L in urine. Upper limits of mercury in the US Mexican American population from 2015 to 2016 were 1.81 μg/L in blood and 0.90 μg/L in urine. At the California Poison Control System’s recommendation, chelation therapy was initiated.

Family members told investigators that the woman used skin-lightening creams purchased in Mexico on her face twice a day for 7 years. Testing showed the cream contained 12 000 ppm of mercury. Previously, health risks have been associated with skin creams contaminated with inorganic mercury at far higher levels of up to 200 000 ppm. But further testing of the woman’s cream detected methyl mercury iodide, an organic mercury compound far more toxic than inorganic mercury, the authors wrote. This case is the first known incident of skin-lightening cream contaminated with methyl mercury, according to the report.

Investigators also assessed another family member who likely was exposed to the cream but didn’t become as ill. California health officials have screened other skin-lightening creams for mercury and warned the public about potential mercury contamination. Signs of central nervous system toxicity resulting from organic mercury exposure are usually apparent within weeks or months of exposure and may cause lasting harm. At the time the report was published, the authors wrote that the California woman required tube feeding despite lengthy chelation therapy.