• Tuesday, November 28, 2023
businessday logo


Deadly trade (III): Regulatory gaps that enable sale of banned bleaching creams

Deadly trade (III): Regulatory gaps that enable sale of banned bleaching creams

Nigeria is signatory to the Minamata Convention on Mercury which requires that each party ban the manufacture, import and export of cosmetic containing more than 1 parts per million of mercury, by taking appropriate measures. This investigation found that sale of these banned skin lightening creams is mostly shifting online but poor funding and capacity gaps, hampers attempts to control these mercury-added creams, writes ISAAC ANYAOGU.

They have been planning the raid for over seven weeks. The target was the cosmetic division of the Trade Fair market, in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Twice it had been shifted. On one occasion, the enforcement team didn’t have enough fuel. The next raid couldn’t hold either because mobilisation to pay police personnel had not been approved. The day the raid finally happened, some personnel couldn’t join because one operational vehicle developed a fault.

Read also: INVESTIGATION: Deadly Trade (I): Fair skin at the cost of people’s health

This is just another Tuesday at the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), in Lagos. The agency’s enforcement officials are at their wits end on how to implement a planned raid at the stores of importers of unapproved cosmetics products. They said there are worse days.

But this is an open secret. “The actual situation in NAFDAC, when I joined was worse, 80 percent of the equipment was not working, no vehicle, no laptops, no computers for even directors,” said Mojisola Adeyeye, the Agency’s boss during a budget defense in 2021.

In 2021, a report by the House of Representatives Committee on Finance which formed part of the 2022-2024 Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP) proposed the exemption of some agencies including NAFDAC from government funding.

James Faleke, a lawmaker, said the agencies that have the capacity to stand on their own without any recourse to the federal government be exempted from budgets.

“If your aggregate revenue is N14.8billion and—even in 2018, government-funded you. Your total expenditure was N8.9 billion, what it means to me is that we have an extra of about N5 billion. You remitted N669 million, what happened to the N4.9 billion,” he queried the NAFDAC boss.

The agency which claimed to have generated N4 billion as of June 2020 through sales of registration forms, fines, industrial fees, and user fees, had no good explanation for this discrepancy, the best it could muster according to its boss was that N3.1billion was used to pay debts. The statement submitted to lawmakers didn’t include proof of this. Backed into a corner, Adeyeye agreed that the agency could exit the budget, take care of all its capital, and overheads, and have excess funds to remit which can be used to reduce budget deficit.

This shambolic state of the agency’s finances partly explains its incompetence. In several meetings the non-profit Sustainable Research and Action for Environmental Development (SRADev Nigeria) had with the agency, the major area of assistance requested was funding to procure materials required for testing the cosmetics products to determine if they contain mercury levels beyond the globally accepted limits.

Read also: Deadly trade (II): Nigeria’s organic skincare industry hides a toxic secret

Mercury importation


The importation of mercury is tightly controlled in Nigeria and the metal is difficult to obtain outside official channels. A gram of silver mercury sighted by this reporter during this investigation was obtained from a batch that NAFDAC imported for laboratory use. The owner was willing to sell it for N250,000 but could not guarantee future supply.

The only way, it seems mercury can get into the market is from supplies NAFDAC imports and distributes to companies and laboratories who require the metal for legitimate purposes. The users undergo a strict approval process after application but it is unclear how much monitoring is done afterwards.

Online sales

Extensive testing by the Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) again confirms that local markets and also internet platforms such as Amazon and eBay (along with many other online internet

marketers worldwide), are selling toxic, dangerous, and often illegal skin lighteners that have been already identified by many governments around the world as over the legal limit.

In a recent study by ZMGW, the collection of samples was carried out by non-governmental organization (NGO) partners of the ZMWG.158 samples (mainly creams, two serums and two soaps) were bought from both physical shops and large and frequently used e-commerce platforms in the 12 countries participating in the study.

After testing, 95 of them, therefore 60 percent, were found to
violate the limit of one part per million (ppm) of mercury that many countries have fixed as a legal limit. For those products found to have mercury levels over 1 ppm, their contents ranged from 40 ppm to over 130,000 ppm.

Most creams were analyzed with X-ray fluorescence (XRF), but 47 were analyzed by accredited labs using Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy. Nine creams (or 9.5 percent) had mercury contents exceeding 100,000 times the allowed limit according to the Minamata Convention.

Sixty-five of the non-compliant creams (or 68 percent) were bought online. While many of these non-compliant creams were identified in our prior 2018 ZMWG testing report last year, their testing confirms that the same brands are still available and being sold in several countries, and/or are available to them from e-commerce platforms.

This study also showed that the same brands were found to contain high mercury levels on several consecutive sampling occasions, in different years, in both physical shops and via e-commerce platforms. In addition to previously identified high-mercury brands, 20 additional were found in the 2019 sampling round.

Based on the information from the packaging, most of the high-mercury products tested were manufactured in Asia, especially in Pakistan (62 percent), Thailand (19 percent) and China (13 percent). However, the study did not test products from Latin America.

By the end of 2020, the Minamata Convention on Mercury requires each Party to ban the manufacture, import, or export of cosmetics containing over 1 ppm of mercury, by taking appropriate measures. Nigeria as a signatory to this convention is obligated to fulfill its obligation.

Nigeria also bans the importation of cosmetics containing mercury. However, without adequate monitoring, local skincare manufacturers are able to mix creams with higher levels of mercury into their products. Most purchase them online.

At the Trade Fair, some of these creams are openly displayed without concern about a NAFDAC raid. Some of these creams tested in a facility in South Africa by Zero Mercury group contain mercury levels higher than one part per million.

“NAFDAC has no reason to raid my store or seize this cream,” said a distributor of Aneeza Gold, who only gave her name as Ifeyinwa, of DonGozzie ventures.

During raids, NAFDAC officials check for packaging for properties of hydroquinone and other proscribed chemicals but the importers are smarter with their packaging. Hundreds of brands without NAFDAC registration will require large capital it does not have to have them tested. So a new concept was born.

“Aneeza Gold cream is an “open market product,” said Rose, another retailer – this is a market term for products that are yet to be registered by NAFDAC and anyone with enough money and time on their hands can procure a NAFDAC registration and apply to be its sole supplier.

Few had heard that mercury is added to creams, including NAFDAC officials leading the inspection teams.

Adeyeye, NAFDAC boss in an interview on the agency’s YouTube channel said: “We have very porous borders, where people bring things in that we don’t approve.”

But these products were all officially imported. In the shops, there are cartons bearing all right the importation labels.

“We do not inspect them like we do one product, two products per company, that is a challenge that we are revisiting as we speak.

“To what extent do we leave them without inspection? Are we going to be doing random inspection so that we can see those that are bringing things in that are of good quality and those that may not be,” said the NAFDAC boss.

The massive growth of online retail has created an enormous challenge for regulators. Jumia, Jiji, and Konga among others have these products on sale. These platforms have failed to ensure that cosmetics sold through their sites directly or by third-party sellers are free of toxic and illegal substances like mercury. NAFDAC has not applied any regulatory sanctions on these platforms.

For now, NAFDAC relies on its enforcement teams to carry out raids in major markets across Nigeria but it’s largely ineffective

“We do raids at the Trade Fair and it is a continuous battle, we carry tons and tons of seized goods, and they still go back to these cosmetics in. Our judicial system is an issue, we don’t give the kind of sentence that the violation demands,” said Adeyeye.