Ramsey County health workers were the first to hear about skin lightening products being sold in Minnesota after speaking with members of the Twin Cities Somali community.
County officials were suspicious about the products and sent one of their own Somali staff members to buy some of the skin creams being found in ethnic grocery and convenience stores. The products later tested positive for mercury, which is banned under Minnesota law from all cosmetics because exposure can harm the nervous system and kidneys.
On Wednesday, officials with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Minnesota Department of Health said they've successfully removed the products from store shelves after an investigation.
The MPCA and Health Department first announced finding mercury in skin cream last May. Investigators held public meetings and worked with the Somali community and other ethnic groups to identify the products and remove them, said Jeff Connell, MPCA enforcement manager.
Connell said it was sometimes difficult to identify who was supplying the products.
"It was coming in in suitcases, shipping boxes; one person would drive to New York to buy it off the back of a truck in an alley," he said. "That's very difficult to follow up on and figure out who's distributing these materials, and to shut off the flow of goods."
Connell said another challenge was banning a product for which there was demand. People were buying the creams, and it appeared the products containing mercury worked better than products not containing mercury, he said.
"There was a deep cultural aspect that was very much a learning curve for all of us," he said. "Ultimately we want to educate the consumer and attack this problem from the demand side, so that they understand the risks and they make the choices that are healthy."
Connell said a state law that already bans mercury in cosmetics helped bolster the investigation.
"Otherwise our only efforts would have been to educate and say, 'You shouldn't do this,'" he said. "We could actually say, 'It's against the law to do this and there can be penalties if you don't stop.'"
Minnesota is the only state in the nation with a specific ban on mercury in cosmetics, Connell said.
Nearly 22 boxes of goods were seized and sampled as part of the investigation. The Food and Drug Administration has used some of the health department's analytical data to stop the importation of other cosmetics containing mercury, MPCA officials said.
Minnesota officials have also provided photos and other information from their investigation to U.S. Customs officials to watch for the products.