Food and Drugs Department hard-pressed to halt import of mercury-laden beauty products

Stakeholders in Guyana’s multi-million dollar cosmetics industry may have noted the recent disclosure by the Ministry of Health’s Food and Drugs Department (FDD) regarding the presence in skin lighteners and other beauty products of potentially harmful levels of mercury, but are not prepared to go public on an issue which Head of the FDD Marilyn Collins says we have every reason to worry about.

The growth of the industry is driven by the growing preoccupation among Guyanese women with looking good. There is an extensive list of skin-lightening products which continue to be imported and sold openly on the local market and one of the busier high street retailers accepts that it is a matter of importers and distributors taking advantage of weak monitoring mechanisms. “Apart from that, cosmetics are among the fastest selling imports in Guyana these days. There is money to be made in retailing beauty products,” the retailer said.

Collins admits that the proliferation of potentially harmful beauty products is, in large measure, a function of official monitoring deficiencies. Long before the department issued its most recent statement on the mercury in beauty products, she had been making the point, publicly and on more than one occasion to this newspaper about her department’s inability to monitor the entry of drugs, foods and cosmetics and its reliance on the Customs and Trade Administration to help fill the gap arising out of its chronic staffing deficiency. In effect, the FDD is powerless to staunch the flow of mercury-laden beauty products into Guyana.

Over time, the focus of the FDD has been on monitoring the importation of harmful foods and medicines though now, according to Collins, a case exists for keeping a more watchful eye of the beauty industry.

The local FDD’s statement came just days after the United States Federal Drug Agency (USFDA) announced that it had found mercury in many products that were being marketed as cosmetics or beauty enhancing creams, lotions, antiseptics or soaps.

Earlier this month, federal health officials warned consumers not to use skin creams, beauty and antiseptic soaps, or lotions that might contain mercury. The USFDA warned that even though these products might be promoted as cosmetics, they may be unapproved under the law.

No such strictures exist here and products known to contain levels of mercury and banned in the United States are sold freely over the counter here.

Local health officials say they have long been aware of the problem of mercury in beauty products and blame the absence of monitoring and inspection systems for the proliferation of the products. One of the country’s leading dermatologists told Stabroek Business that he attends to up to five patients a day with health issues that have to do with the application of ‘fade’ creams.  “The challenge here is that most of these creams are sold openly over the counter and in many cases some of the labels do not list all of the ingredients. The other problem has to do with people with skin issues who would simply go the pharmacy, buy a cream and use it,” the doctor said.

Some importers engage the Food and Drugs Department after they have secured their imports from the local port of entry though Collins concedes that the majority of such imports escapes inspection although the department is equipped to undertake such tests.

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