Woman peddled face cream tainted with mercury, agents say

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Gray News/KTXL/CNN) - A woman peddled face cream tainted with dangerous levels of mercury through Facebook, according to special agents with the Food and Drug Administration.

According to agents, Maria Estela Esparza Magallanes, 30, smuggled the creams in from Mexico, advertised on Facebook, marketed to women in immigrant communities and sold the products in parking lots. They said she made claims that the creams she sold under the names “Crema Esparza” and “Crema Jimena” would lighten skin, remove age spots and treat acne, even posting before-and-after photos to help sell the products.

Agents said Magallanes lied to her customers when she said the products were safe and legal. She said one of the products was “natural” and contained ingredients like lanolin, rose water and bee pollen, investigators said.

The FDA says mothers who used these products were putting their young children at risk.

“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,” an undercover agent said.

A family in the area has been dealing with the side effects of tainted face cream after a woman got sick from using a similar product.

“Well, honestly, I'm at mixed emotions just because no one ever really thought this would ever happen from a face lotion,” said the woman’s son, who only wanted to be identified as “Jay.”

The U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California can't link the arrest they made this week to what happened to Jay’s mom, but some things are strikingly similar.

Through a “friend-of-a-friend connection,” Jay's mom had been using a cream she knew was being altered in Mexico for 12 years.

The California Department of Public Health said that product was laced with methylmercury and its toxic effects on the central nervous system caught up to her, leaving her semi-comatose.

Agents say Magallanes’ two victims suffered physical effects, but nothing as severe as Jay’s mom, who can't walk nor really talk, leaving her husband and five children devastated.

Five months after she got sick, Jay says his mother has shown little improvement.

"It's been really hard, you know? The house - it feels super empty without her. We're just trying our hardest to hold it all together,” he said.

As they try, the investigation continues into who's responsible for taking a vibrant mother away from her life.

"I'm kind of glad that they're not on the street type of thing and selling that product, you know, but it doesn't really make anything different for my mom,” Jay said.

Magallanes is facing three federal charges in connection to the tainted face cream, and if convicted, she could face a maximum penalty of 26 years in prison.

The FDA has information for consumers on how to avoid tainted skincare products and what to look for on a label to know if it’s safe.

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