Botswana has taken a leadership role in proposing to ban the sale and offering of mercury-added cosmetics and skin lightning products on behalf of the African continent.
Together with Burkina Faso, Botswana has submitted the proposal by Africa to amend the Minamata Convention to ban advertising, display, sales and offering of sales of skin lighteners to the secretariat of the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The Minamata Convention is an international treaty set up to protect human health and the environment from mercury compounds.
The proposed amendments are attached to a letter by Oarabile Serumola, a Director at the Department of Waste Management and Pollution Control in the Ministry of the Environment, Natural Resource Conservation and Tourism, addressed to the Secretariat of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
Decentralised third parties
“The proposal is put forward for consideration by the Conference of the Parties at its fifth meeting, which is scheduled to take place from 30 October to 3 November 2023 in Geneva, Switzerland,” reads the letter in part.
The proposed amendments highlight how the proliferation, trade and sales of mercury-added skin lightening products (SLPs) often continues unabated in local markets and increasingly since the COVID-19 pandemic through the Internet. According to the proposal, Internet sales of mercury-added SLPs likely involve illegal activity by online platforms, decentralised third party sellers and producers hiding in the shadows.
In the proposal for a ban on these products, Botswana argues that there is insufficient awareness of health risks from mercury-added SLPs. “Without national collaboration and a globally coordinated effort, on both supply and demand side, SLP trade and sales will persist into the foreseeable future long after all other Article 4 banned products are eventually eliminated,” it notes.
It says despite known health risks, mercury is often added to skin lightening products (SLPs) to ‘lighten’ the skin, as it suppresses production of melanin and removes age spots, freckles, blemishes and wrinkles.
The proposal says SLPs containing mercury have been shown to present significant health risks, especially to pregnant women and other sensitive populations.
“Mercury can readily enter the body via absorption through the skin, inhalation or orally,” the letter points out. “Regular use of mercury-added SLPs reduces the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections and can lead to rashes, skin discolouration and blotching. “Long-term exposure may also damage the eyes, lungs, kidneys, and digestive, immune and nervous systems.”
Presenting the case on behalf of its fellow Afriac countries, Botswana proposes elimination of the 1ppm (part per million) mercury threshold for banning cosmetics. “By eliminating the 1ppm mercury threshold, parties with limited capacity could utilise handheld devices (i.e. XRFs) to efficiently conduct market surveillance through inexpensive screening for mercury-added SLPs,” says Botswana. “There are many countries that have no threshold limit in their regulations.”
The proposed amendments also note that mercury-added skin lightening products (SLPs) are still widely available in local markets and via Internet sales. Therefore, is says, additional steps need to be taken to curtail sales and offering of sales as well as to reinforce and complement existing measures.
The proposal recommends “setting national objectives to phase out sales and offering of sales, including but not limited to carrying out two or more of the following: Developing and implementing strategies to discourage marketing, advertising and display of SLPs.
Several countries, including South Africa, Nigeria and India, have enacted policies discouraging advertising, displaying and promoting toxic SLPs. South African’s policies have been particularly effective in keeping such ads from being aired on television. The widespread use of SLPs – with or without mercury – is particularly disturbing because they are a symbol of societies grappling with colourism.
The proposal also calls for developing and publicising advisories, detention and prohibited substances lists of mercury-added cosmetics. The proposed amendments further note that many national governments have developed prohibited substances lists, which they make available on their websites to facilitate removal and raise consumer awareness. “State and local authorities often provide similar information,” the letter notes.
Breaking the law
“The proposed amendments also called for licensing and product ingredient approvals for manufacturing facilities for cosmetics and beauty products. Monitoring the industry is necessary to identify the manufacturers who may be breaking the law.
Significantly, the letter notes that mercury is hardly ever listed on the list of ingredients attached to the products. Measures to be considered at the upcoming Conference of the Parties include requiring licensing of products and product ingredient approvals to address this issue as well as engaging online platforms in developing and implementing product safety pledges.
“Since 2018, for example, the European Commission Product Safety Pledge 6 has established a voluntary commitment of online marketplaces to remove unsafe products, including SLPs, and 11 companies have signed the pledge,” the letter observes.
Dermatologists and consumers
It notes a need to raise public awareness about the hazards of SLP use among physicians, and beauty centres as well as consumers and family members. “Public awareness needs to be raised not only amongst consumers, but government authorities in order to effectively address different aspects of the SLP issue and conveyed to diverse audiences,” it says.