UK companies sell toxic soap to African women

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The Independent Online

Britain is at the centre of an international trade in dangerously toxic soap which is sold in Africa to lighten the skin of black people despite it being banned in Europe.

Britain is at the centre of an international trade in dangerously toxic soap which is sold in Africa to lighten the skin of black people despite it being banned in Europe.

A report on the trade by the Danish Ministry of the Environment and Energy blames Britain for manufacturing the soap containing high levels of mercury.

The Danish scientists say that the soap is linked with serious medical disorders as well as environmental pollution.

The findings have been passed to Michael Meacher, the Environment minister, asking him to support the introduction of a Europe-wide ban on the production of mercury soap. The sale of the product is already banned in Europe.

The report says the soaps and creams may contain about 1 per cent mercury, a level which poses a serious health hazard, according to the scientists. Use of the soap may cause diseases connected with the nervous system, the kidneys and the skin.

"These products are claimed to be antiseptic, but the real purpose of using them is to obtain paler skin and hair, the report says.

The report's authors found the soap on widespread sale in Tanzania and a chemical analysis showed it contained enough mercury to be potentially toxic to people and wildlife.

The report adds: "These products are used to bleach dark hair and dark skin. The soaps and creams are mainly manufactured in countries within the EC, especially the United Kingdom."

The soap is smuggled into many African countries that have officially banned its importation. The most effective way of dealing with the problem is to ban the soap's manufacture in its country of origin, the report says.

However, it continues: "In spite of these restrictions, soap and cream containing mercury is manufactured in European countries, mainly in the UK, and sold as antiseptic soap to Third World countries.

"Despite the fact that the manufacture of mercury-containing products is not illegal in the EC, we find it immoral that companies within the EC exploit Third World countries by producing and exporting these products, which pose serious health hazards to mankind."

Waste water containing mercury from the soap is washed into rivers where bacteria convert the metal into an even more toxic form, methylmercury. This can be absorbed by fish and also pose a threat to humans through the food chain.

The Danish scientists say ingestion of mercury can cause nervous disorders, kidney disease, dermatitis and can damage verbal intelligence.

Peter Appel, a senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and one of the report's authors, has identified three firms in Britain - Rico Skin Care Ltd, Jambo UK, and Anglo Fabrics (Bolton) Ltd - that allegedly make soap containing significant quantities of mercury, according to product labels.

Mushtaq Munshi, managing director of Anglo Fabrics (Bolton) Ltd, based in Chorley, Lancashire, said the company stopped making the soap in Britain about 15 years ago.

Mr Munshi said: "We hold the registration for clients in Africa. They make it in the Far East. We've asked them to take our name off, but there is a lot of counterfeiting going on."

A spokesman for Jambo UK based in Greenford, west London, said the company is a wholesaler for cosmetics and toiletries but it does not sell anything in Africa.

Fuad Chatoo, managing director of Rico Skin Care, said his firm sells soap containing mercury in African countries where it is allowed. However, he said Rico does not manufacture the soap in Britain.

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