Several brands of soap with high contents of mercury are sold in Africa south of the Saha-ra. The real purpose of mercury in these pro-ducts is to make black skin and hair lighter, although the labels on the soaps often state that they are germicidal. According to their labels some of the soaps are manufactured in Europe, e.g. the UK and Italy. The skin ligh-teners are exported to various African coun-tries and distributed in sub-Saharan Africa where they can be bought on local markets. Some of these mercury-rich soaps are smuggled back into the European Union and can be bought in in hairdressers shops. The distribution of soaps containing mercury is, according to WHO, banned in many African countries, in the EU and North America.
These soaps contain high amounts of mer-cury. Often the amount of mercury in the soap is written on the label, but in some cases the label syas nothing about how much mercury the soap contains.
The mercury contents in a few soaps from Ghana have recently been analysed. The labels of Crusader and Moore stated that they contain mercury, whereas mercury was not mentioned on the label of Silver Rose.
|Brand Name||Mercury content|
Mercury content of soaps from Ghana
Women wash their hair, face, arms or entire body with mercury-rich soap. The foam may be left on the body overnight in order to in-crease the penetration of the mercury through the skin. After repeated use, the hair and skin obtain a lighter colour.
Mercury-rich soaps from Ghana
Some of the mercury goes straight through the skin. The rest is washed off and goes with waste water to the environment. The discarded mercury may be converted into the even more toxic methylmercury by bacterial action. Methylmercury and other mercury compounds enter the food chain and eventually end up in humans, for example through fish consumption.
Elevated mercury contents cause a number of health problems, mainly diseases connected with the nervous system, the kidneys and the skin such as cancer. Tunnel vision and permanent brain damage are just some of the more serious symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Mercury poses a special problem for pregnant women. The foetus accumulates the mercury content of its mother with a factor up to ten. This means that the mother may just show very slight symptoms of mercury poisoning such as tremors, the child may be brain damaged for life.
Lack of knowledge
During surveys carried out by GEUS it has become obvious that most women do not know how dangerous mercury is. This lack of knowledge is apparent in several African countries, but also in black communities in countries like the UK and Denmark.
Get the information distributed
The best way to convey the message about the toxicity of mercury is to use the media mainly television. Small theatre plays with actors explaining the risks that the women take by using mercury enriched soaps are also appropriate ways of communicating the message in sub-urban and rural areas. Rock bands could perform songs with texts describing the dangers of mercury.
Contact Peter Appel (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit: http://www.geus.dk/geuspage-uk.htm
Rico is one of the many soaps with high amounts of mercury
Glahder, C.M., Appel, P.W.U. & Asmund, G. 1999: Mercury in soap in Tanzania. NERI Technical Report No. 306, 23pp.