Woman arrested for selling mercury-laden skin creams

Maria Estela Esparza Magallanes of Orosi allegedly smuggled unregulated skin care products into the U.S. from Mexico

The Sun-Gazette

LOS ANGELES – An Orosi woman who allegedly smuggled skin creams across the border containing dangerous levels of mercury is facing up to 26 years in prison. 

Maria Estela Esparza Magallanes, 30, of Orosi appeared in US. District Court in Fresno on Nov. 19 

She was arrested pursuant to a three-count criminal complaint filed on Nov. 13 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The complaint, which is the result of an investigation by special agents with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Office of Criminal Investigations (FDA-OCI), charges Magallanes with selling adulterated and misbranded skin care products and smuggling the unapproved creams into the United States from Mexico. Magallanes sold the tainted skin creams through advertisements on Facebook with promises that the illegal products could lighten skin color, remove age spots and treat acne. She marketed the products under the names Crema Esparza and Crema Jimena.

The federal affidavit in support of the complaint details how Magallanes sold the smuggled products to two specific victims and an undercover FDA-OCI agent with promises that the creams would treat various skin conditions and would lighten skin color. The Facebook page she used to market the products contained purported testimonials from customers and included before-and-after photos. According to the affidavit, Magallanes sold the creams to the two victims in hand-to-hand transactions in parking lots in Tulare County, and she used the United States Postal Service to ship products on several occasions to the undercover agent.

During online communications with one of the victims and the undercover agent, Magallanes said she guaranteed her “natural” products – one of which she claimed contained standard cosmetics ingredients, including lanolin, rose water and bee pollen, and one of which purportedly was made of “stem cells,” the affidavit states. Magallanes allegedly told one victim that the products did not contain mercury and were sold pursuant to a license issued by California.

However, the creams allegedly sold by Magallanes to one of the victims and the undercover agent contained dangerous levels of mercury. The second victim was tested, which revealed mercury in her system.

In fact, according to the affidavit, a doctor with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who tested the products sent to the undercover agent, concluded: “The amounts of mercury in these products are very high. There is risk to the user, especially with chronic use, and there is risk to those around/in the user, especially infants and children and unborn babies. It is important to note that infants and children who are held by or rub up against a mother using these products can get it on their skin. The mercury will also evaporate from the product and be inhaled by the user and those around her.”

Neuromuscular effects of mercury include symptoms such as tremors, numbness or tingling in hands, feet, or around the lips, and weakness in the extremities. Renal effects include protein in the urine (proteinuria), nephrotic syndrome, and renal tubular acidosis. Persons who use these creams and have any of these symptoms should contact their physician right away and have their urine tested for mercury. Products should be discontinued immediately and discarded.

“This defendant allegedly marketed her illegal products on Facebook, intentionally misleading customers with false claims that the products were legal and safe to use,” said United States Attorney Nick Hanna. “These dangerous creams, which were marketed to women in immigrant communities, jeopardized the safety of women and children across California and in several other states.”

Symptoms of mercury poisoning are non-specific in nature and may go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. The general symptoms include difficulty concentrating, memory loss, anxiety and irritability, depression, insomnia, headaches, weight loss, and fatigue. Children with exposure may develop pink hands and feet, peeling or shedding of the skin, excessive salivation or thirst, gingivitis, irritability, anorexia, leg cramps, hypertension, or rash.

“Selling products with toxic levels of ingredients with unproven claims to treat medical conditions can put users’ health at serious risk,” said Lisa L. Malinowski, Special Agent in Charge, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, Los Angeles Field Office. “The FDA will continue to investigate and bring to justice those who put profits above the public’s health and safety.”

The FDA has issued cautionary statements about skin lightener and anti-aging treatments being contaminated with mercury.

If she were to be convicted of all three counts in the complaint, Magallanes would face a statutory maximum penalty of 26 years in federal prison. The investigation in this case is being conducted by FDA-OCI.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has published a wide array of information about mercury-tainted face creams. In the wake of at least one serious injury resulting from mercury poisoning, the CDPH is actively involved in outreach effort to provide educational materials, health information, and community-based resources to support women who may have used mercury face creams and their children who may have been exposed via skin-to-skin contact.

This matter is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Amanda M. Bettinelli of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section.

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