From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine

By WALT BOGDANICH and JAKE HOOKER
Published: May 6, 2007 

The syrupy poison, diethylene glycol, is an indispensable part of the modern world, an industrial solvent and prime ingredient in some antifreeze.

It is also a killer. And the deaths, if not intentional, are often no accident.

 Over the years, the poison has been loaded into all varieties of medicine — cough syrup, fever medication, injectable drugs — a result of counterfeiters who profit by substituting the sweet-tasting solvent for a safe, more expensive syrup, usually glycerin, commonly used in drugs, food, toothpaste and other products.

Panama is the most recent victim. Last year, government officials there unwittingly mixed diethylene glycol into 260,000 bottles of cold medicine — with devastating results. Families have reported 365 deaths from the poison, 100 of which have been confirmed so far. With the onset of the rainy season, investigators are racing to exhume as many potential victims as possible before bodies decompose even more.

Panama’s death toll leads directly to Chinese companies that made and exported the poison as 99.5 percent pure glycerin…………..

Last week, the United States Food and Drug Administration warned drug makers and suppliers in the United States “to be especially vigilant” in watching for diethylene glycol. The warning did not specifically mention China, and it said there was “no reason to believe” that glycerin in this country was tainted. Even so, the agency asked that all glycerin shipments be tested for diethylene glycol, and said it was “exploring how supplies of glycerin become contaminated.”

China is already being accused by United States authorities of exporting wheat gluten containing an industrial chemical, melamine, that ended up in pet food and livestock feed. The F.D.A. recently banned imports of Chinese-made wheat gluten after it was linked to pet deaths in the United States.

From page 2 –

In fact, The Times found records showing that the same Chinese company implicated in the Haiti poisoning also shipped about 50 tons of counterfeit glycerin to the United States in 1995. Some of it was later resold to another American customer, Avatar Corporation, before the deception was discovered.

“Thank God we caught it when we did,” said Phil Ternes, chief operating officer of Avatar, a Chicago-area supplier of bulk pharmaceuticals and nonmedicinal products. The F.D.A. said it was unaware of the shipment.

 From page 3-

The failure of the government to stop poison from contaminating the drug supply caused one of the bigger domestic scandals of the year. Last May, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, ordered an investigation of the deaths, declaring, “The pharmaceutical market is in disorder.”

At about the same time, 9,000 miles away in Panama, the long rainy season had begun. Anticipating colds and coughs, the government health program began manufacturing cough and antihistamine syrup. The cough medicine was sugarless so that even diabetics could use it.

The medicine was mixed with a pale yellow, almost translucent syrup that had arrived in 46 barrels from Barcelona on the container ship Tobias Maersk. Shipping records showed the contents to be 99.5 percent pure glycerin.

It would be months and many deaths later before that certification was discovered to be pure fiction.

From page 4 – A Major Clue

One patient of particular interest to Dr. Sosa came into the hospital with a heart attack, but no Guillain-Barré-type symptoms. While undergoing treatment, the patient received several drugs, including Lisinopril. After a while, he began to exhibit the same neurological distress that was the hallmark of the mystery illness.

“This patient is a major clue,” Dr. Sosa recalled saying. “This is not something environmental, this is not a folk medicine that’s been taken by the patients at home. This patient developed the disease in the hospital, in front of us.”

Soon after, another patient told Dr. Sosa that he, too, developed symptoms after taking Lisinopril, but because the medicine made him cough, he also took cough syrup — the same syrup, it turned out, that had been given to the heart patient.

“I said this has got to be it,” Dr. Sosa recalled. “We need to investigate this cough syrup.”

From page 5-

The Taixing Glycerine Factory bought its diethylene glycol from the same manufacturer as Mr. Wang, the former tailor, the government investigator said. From this spot in China’s chemical country, the 46 barrels of toxic syrup began their journey, passing from company to company, port to port and country to country, apparently without anyone testing their contents.

Traders should be thoroughly familiar with their suppliers, United States health officials say. “One simply does not assume that what is labeled is indeed what it is,” said Dr. Murray Lumpkin, deputy commissioner for international and special programs for the Food and Drug Administration.

From page 6-

A lawyer for Medicom, Valentín Jaén, said his client was a victim, too. “They were tricked by somebody,” Mr. Jaén said. “They operated in good faith.”

In Panama, the barrels sat unused for more than two years, and officials said Medicom improperly changed the expiration date on the syrup.

During that time, the company never tested the product. And the Panamanian government, which bought the 46 barrels and used them to make cold medicine, also failed to detect the poison, officials said.

The toxic pipeline ultimately emptied into the bloodstream of people like Ernesto Osorio, a former high school teacher in Panama City. He spent two months in the hospital after ingesting poison cough syrup last September.

From page 7-

Last fall, at the request of the United States — Panama has no diplomatic relations with China — the State Food and Drug Administration of China investigated the Taixing Glycerine Factory and Fortune Way.

The agency tested one batch of glycerin from the factory, and found no glycerin, only diethylene glycol and two other substances, a drug official said.

Information source: The New York Times
Renwick McLean and Brent McDonald contributed reporting