A terrific investigation today by the Chicago Tribune discovered high levels of mercury in skin-whitening creams on shelves across Chicago.

Twelve percent of the fifty skin creams it sent for lab testing had illegal levels of mercury. This is 2010, folks.

All the bad ones seem to have been found at ethnic stores frequented by immigrants from places like Africa and India—people who are all-too-often under the radar of our newsrooms and regulators, which makes this investigation all the more important (emphasis mine):

Those tests found that one cream labeled Top-Gel, bought at a small African shop on the South Side, contained 7,030 parts per million of mercury. When the Tribune bought and tested another tube of Top-Gel sold online by a California-based firm, it was found to contain 1.9 parts per million — a much smaller, but still banned, amount. Labels on both boxes said the creams were manufactured by Zenna Chemical.

Again, 1.9 ppm is banned and the other one had 7,030 ppm. But that’s not even close to the worst one, a product with murky ties to an American firm outside Chicago called Stillman Co. Inc. It had 30,000 parts per million of mercury. In other words, it’s 3 percent mercury, while we know from the story that it’s illegal and considered unsafe to have anything above 0.00019 percent.

The packaging says it is manufactured in an area of Pakistan “under arrangement with” the Stillman Co. Inc. USA, based in Aurora.

Back in the 1970s, Stillman authorized a Pakistani company to make and sell skin whiteners under the Stillman name — but only in Pakistan, said Stillman owner Bob Bereman.

In 2007, Bereman said, he saw the Pakistani product being sold online and thought it might contain mercury. He said he had the product tested, and when the results showed mercury, he notified the FDA. Allen, with the agency, said there is no record of a formal complaint.

What is Stillman Company? I wish the Tribune had explored that more here. It’s perhaps worth a follow-up. A company Robert Bereman owns called Macfee Manufacturing is located at the same address in Aurora that as Stillman. Macfee settled with the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Boardin 1998 for air-quality violations over its Sprig air freshener, which “violated the state’s VOC content limitation of 18%.” VOCs are volatile organic compounds that can have a range of health effects.

The Tribune is good to point out that this is a regulatory failure:

FDA spokesman Ira Allen said that with fewer than 500 inspectors reviewing imports, the agency cannot check all food, drug and cosmetic products under its jurisdiction. “It is likely that things get past us,” he said.

And a great graphic rounds out this package.

Excellent work on a serious public-safety issue by the Trib’s Ellen Gabler and Sam Roe.


Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.