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A bat of the lashes could be toxic


For most women, applying two coats of mascara on their eyelashes every morning before heading out the door is standard.

But most may not be aware that the product that gives them dark and luscious eyelashes might also contain mercury.

In late October, more than 140 countries signed the United Nations’ Minamata Convention, which includes a ban on mercury in cosmetics and soaps.

However, mascara and other eye makeup products have been exempted from the protocol because, the UN said, “no effective safe substitute alternatives are available”, and “the intention [of the Convention] is not to cover cosmetics, soaps or creams with trace contaminants”.

Dental fillings are also exempt from the treaty, but its authors have stressed the importance of reducing their use by promoting better oral health and developing more non-mercury alternatives.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, and high levels can cause serious neurological effects and kidney damage. The Convention is named after the Japanese city of Minamata, where mercury from a local chemical plant accumulated in fish and shellfish and poisoned inhabitants, killing almost 2000 and leaving thousands more physically maimed.

To date, no studies have examined the effects of exposure to the low concentrations of mercury found in mascara or other eye makeup, but the toxin is known to be absorbed through the skin.

Mercury is used in mascara to prevent bacterial growth that could cause infections in the eye, and it also acts as a preservative. The United States Food and Drug Administration allows mercury in cosmetics as long as the concentration remains below 65 parts per million.

Joanna Tempowski from the World Health Organization’s International Program on Chemical Safety told Scientific American that the purpose of using mercury in eye makeup was to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi that could spoil the products and that could infect and damage the eye, so the risk-benefit analysis favoured its use.

But Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the advocacy group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, said there was no reason that “a known neurotoxin should be allowed in any of these products”. She said many US companies have developed alternative, non-mercury-based preservatives.

The treaty’s focus was to phase out cosmetics that used mercury in larger concentrations to lighten the skin. Studies have shown that, in these products, the toxin can be absorbed through the skin, potentially leading to kidney damage.

Sheila Logan, a program officer with the United Nations’ Mercury and Other Metals team, told Scientific American that when the treaty’s cosmetics ban goes into effect in 2020, there will probably be few or no products containing mercury. She said alternatives do exist for some mascaras, but not for all.

The treaty also takes aim at industrial air emissions containing mercury, banning and delaying mercury mines, and regulating small-scale gold miners who use the element. As well as cosmetics, the production, import, or export of many mercury-containing products will also be banned by 2020. The list includes mercury in electrical switches and relays, most batteries, many lamps and bulbs, medical items like thermometers and blood pressure devices.

Kirsty Waterford

Image by Gabriela Pinto on Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence