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WASHINGTON — Taking the better-safe-than-sorry route, Minnesota is banning mercury from cosmetics, toiletries and fragrances.
The state law, which took hold Tuesday, could result in fines of up to $700 for retailers who knowingly sell goods with mercury and up to $10,000 for manufacturers. It also might be used as leverage to get information on mercury use in the industry.
The toxic element, which in the past was used as a disinfectant and preservative, can accumulate in the body and injure the nervous system.
"The use of mercury preservatives has been discontinued by the industry," said John Bailey, chief scientist of the Personal Care Product Council in Washington. "There are other preservatives that are better."
Mercury is already more or less banned from cosmetics, except for small amounts in goods used near the eyes, which are sensitive to certain microorganisms that mercury fights. Occasionally, however, mercury is found in lightening skin creams, said Bailey, though it is an illegal and very dangerous practice.
"[The Minnesota law] is really saying things that have already been done either at the federal level or in practice within the industry," he said.
But that's not enough for the North Star State, which this year adopted new restrictions on the use of mercury across a number of products.
John Gilkeson, principal planner at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the beauty industry would not disclose its use of mercury, even at legal levels, and that federal laws prohibit states from legislating labeling requirements. "The only avenue that's open to states in this area is to prohibit their sale," said Gilkeson. "We don't know what products contain mercury. We don't know if there are cases where you have manufacturing practices that aren't up to snuff. You could potentially have a product with a very high level and there's no oversight. There's no testing. It's kind of an honor system."
The concern is a timely one, given the recalls in 2007 of Chinese-made toys bearing lead paint, a product of poor supply chain control and unscrupulous subcontractors.