Several brands of soap and cream with high contents of mercury are sold on markets in sub-Saharan Africa. The purpose of the mercury in these products is to make black skin and hair lighter coloured. The soaps and creams are manufactured in Europe, mainly in Great Britain. Production within EEC is legal, but distribution of soaps and creams containing mercury is, according to WHO, banned in many African countries, in the EEC and in North America. Mercury-rich soaps are not only sold in African countries, but also to black communities in Europe such as Denmark and UK.
The soaps and creams may contain about one percent of mercury and such levels pose a serious health hazard. They may cause diseases connected with the nervous system, the kidneys and the skin in the people using the products. Mercury from the products enters the body by penetrating the skin and via inhalation. The wastewater is highly contaminated with mercury and in the environment; this discarded mercury is converted into the even more toxic methylated mercury by bacterial action. Methylated mercury and other organic mercury compounds enter the food chain and eventually end up in humans, for example, through fish consumption and affect human health.
GEUS and National Environmental Research Institute have made market investigations on mercury-rich soaps and creams in Tanzania during a project in September and October 1999 financed by the Danish Council for Development Research (Project number: 90953)
Rico soap advert in Kinshasa, Congo.
Glahder, C.M., Appel, P.W.U. & Asmund, G. 1999: Mercury in soap in Tanzania. NERI Technical Report No. 306, 23pp.
Peter Appel, GEUS
Phone: +45 38 14 22 14