UK companies sell toxic soap to African women
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
11 May 2000
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
"These products are claimed to be antiseptic, but the real
purpose of using them is to obtain paler skin and hair, the
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
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.