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What is it with heavy metals showing up in cosmetics?

First it was lead in lipstick. Now, the Food and Drug Administration warns that some beauty products made overseas contain mercury.

The stuff is manufactured all over the world — from China to Lebanon. The products include lotions, soaps and even acne treatments. But most are marketed as skin lighteners. That's where the mercury comes in: It blocks production of the skin pigment melanin. But mercury is also a potent toxin that can lead to neurological symptoms and birth defects.

Testing by state health departments in Minnesota, Texas and elsewhere found some products had levels of mercury tens of thousands, or more, higher than the legal limit.

Unfortunately, this has been going on for a long time. Just ask Gary Coody, the FDA's national health fraud coordinator. I did, and he told me that the agency has been fighting mercury-containing cosmetics for years.

The latest warning comes after several states saw an uptick in cases of mercury poisoning related to these products. "We just felt like it was a good time to get information out to consumers," Coody said. "They seem to be resurging in popularity."

Coody said the products usually show up in communities with a strong cultural association between beauty and light-colored skin. As NPR reported in 2009, such beliefs appear in cultures around the world, have been held for centuries and are fraught with race- and class-based prejudices.

Mercury has long been an ingredient in traditional skin-lightening treatments.

Mercury is tightly controlled and virtually absent from cosmetics made in the U.S., but Coody said other countries don't always have the resources to enforce their own regulations. And though it's illegal to sell these products in the States, people buy them online from foreign retailers, or bring them into the country in their luggage.

That makes enforcement a challenge in the U.S., too. So health regulators try to focus on educating consumers.

"I would like to get the word out to people that these products aren't legal. They're dangerous," Coody said. "There's the potential to hurt people."

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