Mercury: Banned from Everything Except Your Mascara (And Your Mouth)

Under a new treaty, mercury will be subject to strict regulations to keep you safer, unless you're a woman who likes mascara.

October 28, 2013

Despite being banned from dozens of industrial uses under a global treaty, mercury is still an allowable mascara ingredient.

A few weeks ago, world leaders convened in Japan to deal with the very serious threat of mercury in the environment. And while the convention went a long way toward eliminating mercury from the largest and most polluting industrial sources, delegates decided to continue allowing its use in mascara, one of the few remaining personal care products to rely on mercury-based preservatives.


Dubbed the "Minimata Convention," named for a town in Japan that experienced decades of mercury poisoning at the hands of a plastics-production company, the treaty was written by the United Nations Environment Programme and was adopted by 140 countries, including the U.S. In signing on, the countries agreed to a number of rules and regulations that will reduce mercury levels in the environment, for instance, installing emissions-control technologies on coal-fired power plants and banning the use of mercury in compact-fluorescent lightbulbs, batteries, and certain medical devices. Just not from your mascara or your dental fillings.

According to an article written by Brian Bienkowski at Environmental Health News, scientists with the World Health Organization (part of the UN) decided that there weren't enough safe alternatives for mercury-based preservatives in mascara, where mercury inhibits the growth of fungi and bacteria that can cause serious eye infections. And that decision doesn't make any sense, says Stacy Malkan, founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "There are plenty of mercury-free alternatives for mascara," she says, adding that, because mascara doesn't typically contain water, there's little need for potent mercury-containing preservatives like thimerasol, which is also used to preserve vaccines (and that use will also continue under the new treaty).

"Mercury is not legal in cosmetics in the U.S. except in eye products," Malkan says, "but even then, nobody's really using it any longer, nor should they be because there are plenty of alternatives." A quick scan of the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep database of cosmetics and the chemicals they contain reveals just one brand sold in the U.S. that still contains the neurotoxic preservative: Love My Eyes mascara, which is owned by Bari Cosmetics, a subsidiary of Revlon.

The treaty states that mercury can be used in mascara if no safe or effective alternative can be found, "but clearly there's an alternative preservative," Malkan says, otherwise more products would contain mercury. Of course, those "safe" alternatives include hormone-disrupting parabens and preservatives that release formaldehyde, so they're still problematic. Nevertheless, "it's a bizarre and totally unnecessary exception," Malkan says.

Worldwide, the leading mercury exposure source for most people is seafood. The neurotoxic heavy metal comes from coal-fired power plants as well as chlorine-production facilities (although the treaty requires these plants will be prohibited from using mercury as of 2025), cement plants, and trash incinerators and as a by-product of gold mining. Much of this mercury finds its way into the ocean, carried through the atmosphere by jet streams, and eventually, into some of your favorite fish, such as tuna and snapper. Because fish don't really swim based on international boundaries—and because the U.S. imports 90 percent of its seafood—mercury emitted anywhere in the world could easily wind up on your dinner plate.

Still, those accepted small exposures from personal care products and dental fillings—also exempt under the treaty with the understanding that countries will gradually phase out the formulations and promote better dental hygeine—add up. And several studies suggest that fetuses exposed to mercury while in utero experience neurological problems. According to a report in journal Environmental Health Perspectives, in one study, children born to mothers with mercury levels of just 1 part per million (the limit on mercury in cosmetics is 65 ppm) detected in their hair had an increased risk of behaviors related to attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they were 8 years old.

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