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environmental justice

LISTEN: The dangers of skin lightening products

"Let's make sure people love their skin so the demand of wanting to use these products is lower."

Senior Agents of Change fellow Michelle Gin speaks with Michael Xiong of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency about the dangers of skin lightening products that contain mercury.


They discuss Xiong’s work on this issue in Minnesota, what on-the-ground intervention strategies look like, and why we all need to love our skin.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Xiong, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Michelle Gin

Hello, my name is Michelle Gin, and I am here today with my friend and colleague, Michael Xiong. He is with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and he's an environmental health specialist. Today we're gonna be talking about skin lightening products, specifically mercury in skin lightening products. So hi, Michael. So glad you can join us today. How are you doing?

Michael Xiong

Good. How are you doing, Michelle? Glad to be here. It's nice to be here with you. And it's been a while.

Michelle Gin

Yeah, so glad you're here. So tell me about your role at Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Michael Xiong

Yeah, so my role at the MPCA, which is what we call Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for short, revolves mainly around education on mercury in consumer products. Such products would be mercury thermostats, mercury switches, jewelry, toys, and even cosmetic products. how I go about what I do at MPCA is that I usually get products or suggestions of products that could possibly contain mercury, and I'll send them out to be tested. If a product comes back with any levels of concern, we'll work with businesses, shop vendors, whether it be online or in-person vendors, about removing the product or changing some sort of compound formula. And I should probably note that I'm not enforcement, and I'm on the education outreach side. So I don't send any fines or punishments to people, so people shouldn't target me for those things. Kind of an example of what I've been doing a lot lately, is that all my focus has been on skin lightening products. You know, they are cosmetic products that, you know, do make your skin lighter. And of course, the main ingredient for almost every one of these products is mercury, as has been known to be very effective. I've been working with nonprofits, local governments, online vendors, such as like Amazon, eBay, and so forth, and local vendors to kind of educate them about the dangers of using these products, as well as getting them off the shelves. And then of course, our main focus at the MPCA is to get them properly disposed, such as taking them to the household hazardous waste partners that we have.

Michelle Gin

Thank you. So tell me, why is this important to human and environmental health?

Michael Xiong

Yeah, so here at the MPCA, one of our main slogan is to include human health, because usually, a lot of times people think, "Oh, they're just worried about their environment." They think we might be tree huggers only –we are, but we also worry about human health as well. And a lot of times these mercury vapors, which is what we do find a lot of times when people open some of these products or get them exposed in the homes, is that it gets people sick. So it gets, it disrupts their endocrine systems. And of course, it gets caught in landfills. And of course, once people burn the landfills or whether it be in the factories, or wherever it might be, it gets in the air, and of course it ends up falling back down to their lakes and waters, and then people do eat the fishes [living in those bodies of water] and then that's how they can kind of contribute to mercury in fishes as well. And then people get sick from that as well. So it's like a real cycling revolving door where one thing kind of affects another. So it's not just people here in Minnesota we're worried about, but it's people around the world. So it's a combination of things that can affect human health and environmental health, kind of both at the same time.

Michelle Gin

Tell me about the communities that are most impacted by mercury in skin lightening products.

Michael Xiong

Yeah, so it's interesting that we do find a lot of the communities who are most in effect of skin lightening products to be people of color. What I mean by color is that there is not a distinct –To be honest, there is not a distinct that people want to be white – as in to be Caucasian is what I'm trying to say. They want to be seen lighter in a way that they seem to qualify as beauty. For example, I am Asian, so people who want to be... who use skin lightening products, they tend to have a darker complexion, and they want to be lighter, to be seen as noble or someone who doesn't go out and work on the fields, someone who has a high society status as well. And that rings true in other people of color as well. Like I work a lot with people in our Somali communities here in Minnesota. And they can tend to feel the same way where they want to be seen as fair and beautiful and not seen Dark as and they work out in the fields or, you know, have a higher chance to get a spouse partner as well. And those are kind of the communities that I've been working with. And those are the communities that are most impacted as people of color. But I'm not going to say it's only people of color, but they get the most impact. But we do get a lot of people who are white or Caucasians, I would say, that do use skin lightening products as well. And it might not be for the exact same reasons, but they do use it, whether it be for health benefits or color pigmentation that they might have on their skin. So it's not just people of color, but they're doing it for different varieties of ways. And same with people of color: They're using it, but they're doing it for different reasons. But the main reason that we found is beauty and the way that that want to be viewed as

Michelle Gin

that's so powerful. I mean, this is definitely this is environmental justice and beauty justice. So tell me, why does this work is important to you?

Michael Xiong

So as I stated, I am Asian. So in particular, I am Hmong, here in Minnesota. And one of the biggest sellers of skin lightening products that is found in Minnesota is from Hmong pending shops. In particular, we have a couple of flea markets that were areas of targets to have search and seizures, where thousands of these products were found, and more so than people did get sick from some of these places. And so it has greatly impacted my community in terms of not just the products that are being sold. But in terms of like the marketability, in terms of like, it's on the news, and people are like, "oh my goodness, look at this place, they're selling sketchy stuff." And I don't want them to view at our community as a community that sells sketchy stuff, because it kind of hurts me in that way as well. But I do want to get the address that hey, you can work with us. And we can find proper ways to love our skin. And of course, not just for Asians, but I care a lot about our Somali population as well, because I've got a chance to really know a lot of great people, and I'm looking out for them as well as people in our state, now that I work for the state, so everyone has been one after another. So it's, I'm trying my best to work for everyone. And this was something that was new to me. So I'm not gonna say… I've always worked on this product or the situation [not only] recently, I've been working on this since college. As, you know, I had an awesome opportunity which I was in public health as my major and we had a senior seminar and we worked with the Department of Health, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to kind of kick off this whole scaling program that we have here at MPCA called the "Love your skin" campaign. And so that has really brought light to my eyes and saying, "Hey, this is a serious situation that's happening in our state, happening in your community, which is my community, and we should do something about it, because it's affecting a lot of people." And I don't want anyone to have any kind of issues if I can prevent it. Or if I can do some way to help businesses to kind of not be harbor of bad stuff. I am willing to put myself out there to help anyone that I can and be open to help everyone if I could.

Michelle Gin

That's such an important role, that education piece. And my god, like you fit in so well because so many people, like you said, didn't always know about this issue when you first started. I mean, thinking about these communities, my own community, this is coming from a place where maybe in one's home country, this was a normal thing to be sold in the markets. But the laws are different here in the US in the regulation and being able to take that educational approach is such a good way to better gain trust in a community rather than going straight for like enforcement as a you had mentioned earlier.

Michael Xiong

Yeah, it's true because I think a lot of times we go out and buy our products. We don't tend to think what's in it. We just want to tend to what it's for. Kind of like when girls go out and buy lipsticks and lotions and stuff that we're not look in the bag of ingredient going "what's in this before I buy it?" you know, we're like, "oh, I need a red one, or I need a dry skin one" or whatever it might be. And we're not so sure to look at what's inside. So I don't blame people for not knowing because the message isn't out there quite as broad. But it's getting there. And it's getting and that's our intent.

Michelle Gin

So I heard you talking a little bit about... So we're talking about mercury you've mentioned, you also mentioned fish in mercury. And it's important to note like the difference of inorganic mercury, found in skin lightening products and organic mercury found in fish. Could you just elaborate a little bit more for the audience?

Michael Xiong

Yeah, that's a great question. So mercury in fish, is usually what we would call organic mercury. So organic is usually, as kind of how it sounds, kind of like you get organic foods or organic bananas, it's untouched, it's naturally grown. And that's what organic mercury is. And so it's naturally-made mercury from the environment. Because obviously, Mercury is an element in our periodic table is something that happens wrong Mother Nature that is produced naturally. So inorganic, would be the exact opposite where it's man-made, or, you know, machine-made, or however you want to call it. So it is made by not nature, so people are making inorganic mercury. So that's usually a big compound that is found in the skin lightening products. People are making mercury because they can make mercury because it's very easy to make it. And I did mention early, it is very effective in terms of, you know, whitening the skin. And so in that two-compound, that two mixture of a) being cheap to make, and b) being very effective to do, makes these products to have a lot of mercury, because hey –why should I spend so much money on research to make your skin lighter when the product is right there, and I can do it really cheaply, and really quickly, and make your skin lighter? It sounds like a win-win bonus for a lot of these companies and for a lot of these folks that they're not looking at what's the pot with mercury that's in there. They're looking at the results, and they're like, "Wow, my skin got super light. And that's how I wanted it to be." And so that's been a deadly combination, in terms of getting mercury out– is that it's very cheaply made, and it can be done very quickly.

Michelle Gin

Yeah, that's hard because a lot of people don't know about the health impacts that come with using, having mercury in these products, and how it's actually really detrimental to one's health. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Michael Xiong

Yeah, so it also, you know, it's very detrimental to your skin, obviously, because you're applying it to your skin. So a lot of effects could be future skin cancer or you're obviously giving yourself room to be in heavy infection because obviously your skin is a layer to block any kind of infection you would get. So if you're kind of peeling your skin back – which is what mercury, which is used to block the melanin in your skin, or melanin in your body–. And then of course, another compound that is used in skin lightening products is hydrocodone and different steroids. So what hydrocodone does is it's a steroid, It's a bigger steroid. And what it does is, it's kind of like a paint thinner. So usually kind of when you paint your house, you have like little paint in order to kind of remove the paint. And that's kind of what hydrocodone does on top of the mercury. So if you get like one of those compounds that have hydrocodone and mercury, it's it's a deadly combination where the mercury blocks the melanin from detecting the sunlight. And then hydroquinone, which kind of blocks, removes the skin. So you're moving layers of skin off your body. And of course, you can also be led to having different health issues kind of like kidney disease, you can also have skin cancer and so forth. And you can have different discoloration on your body. We do see people who once they use skin lightening product, they have what would be like almost like a purple look kind of their skin, it's almost like you're getting bruising, as well as redness. And so you can kind of tell on their face and going like "wow, something looks off" or maybe it's like a skin scarring or tissue kind of coming around.

Michelle Gin

Oh, yeah, that's scary. All the different types of toxic chemicals in these products. It definitely makes sense why they are... one found needing to go to household hazardous waste. So I know in your position you do home visits after you've been notified when someone has had an elevated urine mercury level. Could you walk us, walk me through what does that look like for a home visit? Like how you're notified of that? What does it look like and what type of follow up is there with our community?

Michael Xiong

Yeah, so we work in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health in the MN FEET program, and then who does all the exposures and we're working with communities, clinical communities around around our local Twin Cities here. And they're working around the state as well as at this point. So they are detecting people in urine. So mercury, organically, is found in the blood. But inorganic is found in the urine. So usually they have kids or pregnant woman, they've been doing a test where they would be tested for mercury in urine. And once they have a high detection, they would contact the Department of Health and say, "Hey, we found, we have a patient here who might have been exposed to mercury." And then of course, there's some follow-up questions that they would do [like] do you use skin lightening products, and so forth. And if they agree to Yes, Department of Health will contact us at the PCA and say, "hey, they would like a home visit, can you come out to wherever the location is, and kind of detect their homes for levels of mercury?" And the reason why we do the home visit before I jump into it is that when someone opens a can of mercury in a skin lightening product, they're literally exposing your house from the mercury vapors. So if you put it in your house, you're exposing the air into your home. So you're not just using and applying it as dangerous, but you're also smelling it and breathing it. And mercury is kind of tricky, because it doesn't have a smell, and you can't visually see it. And so as soon as they open it, they don't know that they're exposing their home, their whole house to mercury vapor. So when we go out to these homes, you know, I'll go out and, you know, I'll go around their living room, their kitchen, using the Lumex, which is a mercury vapor analyzer. And I'll check every cooks and cranny of their homes if they wish me. And if there's some areas they don't want me to go to, I won't go into those areas for privacy. And I'll test any kind of products that they have on hand that they would like me to test. So I would just kind of go around the homes and look for any kind of signs of levels. And there's no home visits are ever the same, that I've been a part of. Everything's been a little different, you know, we would find a washer machine that has like high levels of mercury. Or we would have like one corner of the bedroom that has high levels of mercury and everything else is clean. And then there's different tactics that I would use to try to help the family out whether it be to open the windows and open the sliding doors to kind of get air circulated to the mercury to get out of the home. Or, or in the case of the washing machine. Get some mercury decontaminant to kind of run through the cycles. And hopefully that'll pick up the mercury that are stuck inside the washing machine and go from there. But every home visits been really different. But the washing machine has been one of my most challenging case, because I didn't know what to do. Because at that point where I was like, if this washing machine doesn't work, I don't know how this family is going to do laundry. And they didn't have money for a new washer as well. And that was something I had brought back to my boss and say, "hey, if they don't have a washing machine, and I can't get this to work out, do we have some sort of funding we can help this family and, you know, can we get them a new washer if that's possible?" and so that was an obstacle that I had to find. And luckily, we didn't get to resort to that situation. But we did get some money pulled aside in case that were to happen to help this family in a washer if it didn't work out. So we ended up going back a couple times making sure it was well before they can use that washer again. And it worked out really well for the family and that we were able to get rid of the mercury in the washer.

Michelle Gin

I am so glad to know that we have individuals like yourself, who are going, who are working with our communities, our multigenerational homes, that are also very much impacted from this issue. There's a lot of our immigrant refugee communities where this is a common practice and that you are there and thinking about this and the equity of what does it cost if you can't have a washing machine, what are those implications, and raising that up. So thank you, Michael.

Michael Xiong

It's important too because not everyone has the funding to go out and buy a new washing machine. I just recently bought one myself and I have to say it took me an arm and a leg just to get one. I couldn't imagine what their family would have gone through if that would happen. But you know, we had the backend, or my bosses and so forth. So we were able to pull out some money aside in case –which was awfully nice of the state to do as well. So but there's a big prop to the people that are behind me to help support us and support these communities as well. So it's not just a one-man team. We've got the whole state to back up as well. So a lot big, big thanks to them as well.

Michelle Gin

Absolutely. So we're talking about during your home visits, you're going in and detecting mercury. And I know it's the device is called a Lumex. Can you describe like, what is a Lumex? What does this look like? What would it be if you were to be coming into someone's home looking for mercury vapors?

Michael Xiong

Yeah, so the Lumex machine, it's a so that's kind of the brand name, Mercury RA 915. So that's the actual model. It's interesting, because every time I carry it with me, I get looks wherever I go, even here at the MPCA. The best way to describe it is that it's a blue box. Usually I have it in like a case box, almost as if I'm like a... A messenger bag. It's actually pretty heavy. It's about 20 to 25 pounds, somewhere between there. And it looks like a Ghostbuster machine. It's not a backpack, so I don't get it carried in my backpack, like a Ghostbuster. But it's, it's along to my side, and it's got a hose that comes out. So it almost looks like I'm walking around like a Ghostbuster. And that's something that people have been saying, "oh, yeah, you're gonna go out and do some Ghostbuster work, right? "And like, Yep, I sure am. And so that's the best way to describe how the Lumex looks like and how I look like when I'm out in public with this set. I look like I'm Ghostbusting out there. And whether it be when I go to the shops to bring it, or whether bring it to the agency or people's homes, I do get looks. And it does get turned from carrying after a while because it is about 20 to 25 pounds. And it makes a humming noise, but it doesn't emit any kind of mercury out there, or anything, it just kind of sucks it in to kind of just get a reading. So there's really no dangers or no harmful [inaudible]. Try to use the product it does make that humming noise but otherwise it's strictly safe. And it is a very expensive machine. So I try not to drop it because it is $50,000. And so I don't want to drop that. So I always have that wrapped on my shoulder. And I always carry it as, on my side, just with my hands just to make sure it doesn't drop. So it is a very expensive machine. And it's very sensitive. And it can get to detect people who might have amalgams. And so if you're not sure what amalgams are, it's silver fillings in your teeth, and so can detect that sensitive level as well. So it could even go even small, the tinniest faint of mercury, it'll detect that; as well as something... but the maximum I can get is 50,000 nanograms per cubic meter, which has been maxed out a couple of times. So you know, when that happens, it's usually pretty dangerous.

Michelle Gin

Wow, thank you, Michael. So I heard you earlier, mentioning, one of the key messages in the work of the state of Minnesota is love your skin. So we've been talking about the health impacts and environmental impacts from mercury in the skin lightening products. But that's only one approach to how do we make changes in businesses of choosing to sell such products, as well as changes in individuals to even want to purchase these products. So could you tell me more about the message of love your skin and its meaning to you.

Michael Xiong

And to the message "love your skin" is a big part of... it's a big part of me, because obviously a big part of love your skin is contributed from me and my class. So it's something that I will always take away from my college experiences as well as my professional experience. So luckily, I was able to hop right into it from my college career. Love your skin derives from our... well what we did, we did focus groups in college to kind of conduct on message and how to approach you know, reducing the use of mercury. And you know, the best, most impactful way is to stop the demand. And so usually when there's demand, people are gonna make the product. So if there's less demand, they're not going to make the product. So we figured out, hey, you know, let's, let's make sure people love their skin, so the demand of wanting to use these products is lower. And so that's kind of how the love your skin campaign come about is to love your skin, and to not want to look a certain way to kind of appreciate how God has made you whether you believe in God or whoever it may be. It's that you know, appreciate who you are and how you're born and kind of really enjoy yourself instead of be so focused on trying to change yourself and make yourself miserable, just be okay with who you are. And it means a lot to me because it was something that my class and I made one for one whole semester. I mean, it was very draining. It was a lot of hard work. We developed a lot of outreach messages, a lot of campaign a lot of analyzing focus groups on messages, and so forth. It really seemed to excel well here at the state where they were able to translate into multiple different languages. So when I go out to these home visits, whether they are Spanish speaking and they are Somali speaking, Hmong speaking, I have fliers that I can say, hey, love your skin, these are direct messages, this is how to dispose of the product. This is how, what kind of health issues you can be aware of, pass this information along. And a lot of times they have been very respect receptive of this message and are willing to pass out to their loved ones or their family members or their friends. And so the message being sent around that, "Hey, you didn't know that this was a danger. But now I know, I'm going to tell everyone," and this was a great campaign and a great message from the state to adopt. And we that was something that when we did in college, we weren't sure if the state was going to want to accept this and the fact that they accepted that work that made it seem like "wow, we are making an impact." And we're trying to one step at a time. We're one home or one person at a time. And we're hoping this will trickle from one person tell another and tell another and by the time you know what everyone knows, love to love your skin.

Michelle Gin

Absolutely. Having been with those people on the Minnesota Department of Health team at that time, it was very exciting to see a group of bright, excited students developing that key message and now it's been translated and the educational handouts that you and other folks uses in eight languages. That's so exciting.

Michael Xiong

It is it is. And I think they're hoping to get more as we get more translators and more different languages that come into the state that we're going to be putting them in different languages.

Michelle Gin

It is an exciting time. And yeah, that work. I mean, that was years ago. And it's continued to grow. And hopefully this work and awareness will continue to be raised about mercury and skin lightening products and multi-prong approach of let's talk about the health impacts as well as loving your skin so we can slow down that demand and slow down the supply. So Michael, thank you so much for sharing your work today. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with those listening?

Michael Xiong

Yeah, one last thing that I would love to share with everyone is that you know, even though I'm here working for the state, off the "love your skin" campaign in college, you know, I'm here for everyone in the state, you know, I want everyone to be safe. So I'm always out there looking for products that might contain mercury, whether it be light bulbs, or thermometers or skin lighting products that we're going to do our best to get them off the markets, to get them properly disposed so they don't get in our air, So they can't go into our lakes to get into fishes that people love to eat, especially in my community, the Hmong community, we love to fish, but you know, I'm out here working our best and we're going to do our best to make sure they're out the markets and make sure people are safe. And whether it be in their homes, you know, we are going to do our best to make sure everyone is safe from mercury in some fashion. And if people are always wanting to know more, they're always welcome to visit the MPCA's website or the Department of Health's website about skin lightening products or even mercury in general. But if they're always wanting to reach out, they're more than willing to reach out to me as well do my email michael.Xiong@state.mn.us You know, I'd be willing to talk to people if they want to talk or if they want to know more information. You know, they're always welcome to reach out as I've got an open door for anyone who wants to talk about this as well.

Michelle Gin

Thank you, Michael, thank you again for your time. It's always a pleasure to chat with you.

Michael Xiong

Awesome. Thank you so much, Michelle.

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