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New study to measure effect of mercury in cosmetics

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Minnesota health officials this summer will launch a study of whether elevated mercury levels among new mothers in immigrant communities can be tracked to illegal skin-lightening products, the Star Tribune reports.

As part of the research, health officials will begin testing mercury levels of newborns at Twin Cities hospitals, the newspaper reports.

The state prohibits sales of mercury-containing cosmetics, but a recent study by state and St. Paul-Ramsey County health officials found high mercury levels in 11 of 27 skin-lightening creams and soaps sold in Minnesota, officials have noted.

Health officials say the new study is an important one because mercury can cause kidney damage, as well as skin rashes, skin discoloration and scarring, and a reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, the World Health Organization has reported. Pregnant women and children are thought to be particularly at risk to the health effects of mercury.

The Federal Drug Administration has warned consumers not to use cosmetics containing mercury, some manufactured abroad but available on the Internet.

The new $500,000 research, announced Wednesday by the Health Department, aims to determine whether such products are the reason raised mercury levels have been detected in some Twin Cities women. The study also aims to measure differences in mercury exposure among different ethnic groups.

Exposure to mercury (What is mercury?) seems to vary by race, state health department officials note, citing one 2009 study that found mercury levels were lowest among Hispanic women, a bit higher among black and white women, and considerably higher among who who identified as "other race," which included Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Caribbean.

Health officials in Ramsey County say they have tried to raise awareness about the effects of mercury in cosmetics particularly among Somali women, noting that Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the U.S., with an estimated 50,000.

University of Minnesota researchers last year released a report in which Somali women were interviewed and said they use cosmetics that contain mercury. The report notes many Somali women believe lighter skin is more beautiful than darker skin.

But there is no good data about mercury levels in Somali women or newborns in Minnesota, state health officials say. Other states in biomonitoring studies have found increased mercury levels in women who used skin-lightening creams.

State officials have more information here about what is being done about mercury in Minnesota. Among the programs is one that offers guidance about how much fish to eat.

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