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Mercury poisoning gets under San Francisco woman’s skin

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When tests of a young Tenderloin mother revealed high mercury levels in her blood and that of her just-born baby’s umbilical cord, public health officials combed her apartment to find out why. The culprit was in the bathroom.

“It was the face cream,” said Chris Weden, an emergency responder for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Mercury’s good for removing spots in your skin, which new mothers often have. She had no idea it could harm her child.”

The woman, whose identity was withheld, had face cream from Mexico, said Karen Cohn of The City’s Department of Public Health.

“They brought out the product, and she said, ‘My mother bought that for me in Michoacan. We go to a small pharmacy and they add these special ingredients — eucalyptus, folic acid, red oxide,’” Cohn said. “There’s no such thing as ‘red oxide,’ so we knew that might be where the mercury was coming from.”

It was the second time in two years that mercury-laden Mexican face cream has surfaced in the Bay Area. Other states have encountered similar creams from elsewhere.

The latest case was detected only because the mother volunteered for a health survey. Neither mother nor baby had discernable symptoms of poisoning.

“This is probably the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Rupali Das of the California Department of Public Health.

After the first case was discovered last year, officials began broadcasting Spanish-language ads and warning women’s health care providers to look out for the cream, Das said.

Officials may purchase face creams from neighborhood stores to check whether any imported creams have been treated with mercury — a strategy employed in other states.

Das said more clues may come to light as public health officials test more women for mercury — a test that has, until now, only rarely been conducted. She said many cases of poisoning have likely gone undetected or misdiagnosed.

“The symptoms of mild to moderate mercury toxicity are very nonspecific; it can mimic a number of other diagnoses,” she said. “The cases are very difficult to pick up.”



Mercury matters

Types of mercury poisoning: Methylmercury is found in some kinds of fish and shellfish; most people have some level of methylmercury in their blood. In contrast, elemental mercury is an inorganic compound that comes from spills or other contamination — broken thermometers, environmental contamination, inappropriately mixed into face creams or added to candles.

Symptoms of elemental mercury poisoning: Tremors; emotional changes such as mood swings or nervousness; insomnia; neuromuscular changes such as weakness or twitching; headaches; changes in nerve responses; decrease in IQ. Extreme exposures will result in kidney effects, respiratory failure and death.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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