Updated: 9:30 p.m. | Posted: 12:12 p.m.
Pregnant women who use skin-lightening products or who eat certain kinds of fish more often may be putting themselves and their babies at risk for exposure to mercury, state health officials warned Tuesday.
The Minnesota Department of Health said it studied nearly 400 pregnant women and their babies for exposure to mercury and other toxic materials. Researchers found that women in the study who had used skin-lightening products in the past had more mercury in their urine than women who didn't use these products.
Follow-ups with women who had high urine mercury levels found that using skin-lightening products was the main reason for the high levels, the department said Tuesday as it released the report's findings.
In some instances, researchers "found skin-lightening products that were putting mercury into the air that the whole family was breathing," the agency added, noting that it helped those families to reduce their exposure.
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Mercury is a neurotoxin that can harm the brain or nervous system and cause other health problems.
Skin lighteners with mercury are not allowed on the market in the U.S., but imported products, some mixed with other ingredients at home, still pose a danger.
"You can't see, taste or smell mercury in them. So most times women do not know they have mercury in them. They're not listed on the label often," said Jessica Nelson, an epidemiologist with the state health department.
The study also found that women who ate more walleye, northern pike, bass, white bass or king fish had more mercury in their babies' umbilical cord blood.
Further investigation found most of those women ate those fish more than once per month, the department added, noting that it recommends pregnant women and children eat those types of fish once a month at most.
Asian, East African, Latina and white pregnant women participated. Researchers said Asian women in the study, especially Hmong women, had the highest levels of mercury among all participants.
The Health Department said skin-lightening products may also be putting Latina and East African women in danger of high mercury levels. Some Latina women in the study had high mercury in their urine, and East African women in the study had the second-highest urine mercury after Hmong women, researchers said.
The study focused on these groups because of communities' concerns and information from other studies indicating they may have more of these chemicals in their bodies than women from other communities.
"Mercury exposure can be a significant health concern, but in this case the good news is that those groups we found to be at elevated risk have the power to reduce that risk," Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement.
The study also tested the women for lead and cadmium levels but found "very low levels" of both.
Amira Adawe, a public health advocate and university instructor founded Beautywell, an educational effort to address skin lightening practice and its dangers, as well as help redefine beauty in a way that doesn't idealize light skin.
Adawe said the Minnesota Department of Health study shows the problem extends much beyond the East African community she has focused on.
"The MDH study validates even more why we need to establish this issue as a public health issue," Adawe said.