State health officials will start testing mercury levels in newborns at Twin Cities hospitals and clinics this summer as part of a $500,000 investigation to determine if elevated mercury levels among women in immigrant communities can be traced to illicit skin-lightening products.

Minnesota bans the sale of cosmetics containing mercury — which can cause kidney damage, birth defects and nervous system ailments — but a Minnesota Health Department inquiry in 2011 found excessive mercury levels in 11 of 27 skin-lightening creams and soaps purchased at stores around the state. Some contained mercury at 135 to 33,000 parts per million, far in excess of the 1-part-per-million limit set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The new research project, announced Wednesday by the Health Department, will try to pinpoint whether such products are the source of heightened mercury levels in some Twin Cities women and measure differences in mercury exposure among different ethnic groups.

Officials will test newborns' blood samples and have mothers fill out questionnaires asking about their exposure to skin-lightening products and other potential mercury sources, such as fish they have eaten.

Despite federal and state regulations, cosmetics and toiletries containing mercury often pop up either openly or behind the counters of small shops in Latino, Asian, African or Middle Eastern neighborhoods, according to the FDA.

Product labels often omit mercury as an ingredient or list it under another name, such as "mercurio" or "calomel." Many of the products enter the country through unconventional, unregulated channels such as personal suitcases.

After the Health Department warned Minnesotans not to use skin-lightening products because of their mercury levels, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency identified stores that sold them and confiscated the products, sending about 1,350 cease-and-desist letters to retailers.

Since then, the agency has relied on consumer complaints to identify illicit sales but hasn't received any, MPCA compliance and enforcement manager Katie Koelfgen said.

"The most efficient way to try to get at this problem is to reduce the demand," Koelfgen said.

Symptoms of mercury poisoning include memory loss, irritability and numb hands, feet or mouth, according to the FDA.

Amira Adawe, a health educator for St Paul-Ramsey County Health, has worked on the issue through community outreach and in her research as a public health graduate student at the University of Minnesota.

Adawe said women tell her they use skin-lightening creams mainly to remove dark spots from pregnancy and to be more attractive to men.

She said many Somali-American women who use skin lightening creams mix multiple products and apply them all over their bodies two or three times a day, including when they are pregnant or breast-feeding.

Adawe has started a closed Facebook group where participants can share their experiences with skin-lightening creams, encourage others to stop using them and discuss what beauty means to them. It has 350 members, many of whom are men saying they don't want women to use the creams because of the health concerns, Adawe said.

One way to decrease use of these creams, she said, is change the impression that women have to lighten their skin to be beautiful.

"Caday," Adawe said, is a Somali word commonly used as a compliment, to call someone beautiful because they are fair-skinned.

"It's a symbol to say," Adawe said, "but it leaves a mark on the person that only light skin is beautiful."

The project, Minnesota Family Environmental Exposure Tracking, or MN FEET, will cost $534,000 over the next two years.

Since many of the products contain toxic levels of mercury, the Health Department recommends disposing of them as household hazardous waste at an MPCA collection site.

Rebecca Harrington is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.