Skin-lightening cosmetics containing hazardous mercury are gone from Twin Cities shops, a year after a team of state and county agencies launched an investigation, officials said Wednesday.

State regulators warned two distributors to stop sales, sent more than 1,000 cease-and-desist orders to small neighborhood stores and started major efforts to inform people that the products were harmful.

"This stuff was very hazardous -- some of it 160,000 times the federal threshold for hazardous waste," said Jeff Connell, compliance and enforcement manager at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The products were sold in 1.5- to 2-ounce bottles for about $25, mainly to Somali, Hmong and Latino women, he said.

Connell said the products typically contained 5 to 16 percent mercury -- enough to impair vision, hearing and speech and to cause liver, kidney and brain damage, although officials said they're not aware of anyone who became ill using the products.

The products are used to lighten skin color and remove age spots and other skin discolorations.

"The problem is that while there are other, safer products sold to do the same thing, the ones with mercury are the most effective," Connell said. "Effective but extremely hazardous."

The creams, pastes and lotions are sold under many names with non-English labels that often do not list mercury as an ingredient, he said. "They're manufactured abroad, brought in through nontraditional channels and sold in flea markets, kiosks and small shops," he said. "But we think we've got a handle on it."

While federal rules require importers to report mercury levels higher than 1 part per million, considered a trace amount, Minnesota is the only state that specifically bans mercury from cosmetics, Connell said.

"That made us an ideal place to start this enforcement. Our goal ... was to educate the sellers and buyers that this is very dangerous stuff," he said.

After being alerted to the danger last May by some Somali case workers in Ramsey County, officials assembled a task force including the MPCA, the state Health Department, Hennepin County, Ramsey County, the Minnesota Poison Control System, the Food and Drug Administration and people from several affected ethnic groups.

"We think the products are no longer being sold," Connell said. "Still, we want people to be alert. If they have some creams they think might have mercury, they should take it to a hazardous waste disposal site," he said. "This stuff is really hazardous to people and to the environment."

Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253