Monday, June 18, 2007

paving the road to hell

The New York Times follows up on the Chinese poisoning story, this time retracing the steps of a failed F.D.A. investigation of the poisoning of scores of Haitian children over ten years ago. The circumstances of the poisoning were similar to those of the Panama poisoning last year: poisonous counterfeited Chinese glycerin that was later used in medicine. The story describes the futility of a U.S. federal bureaucracy conducting a cross-border investigation in the face of uncooperative, corrupt Chinese government and business.

The Americans had reason for alarm. “The U.S. imports a lot of Chinese glycerin and it is used in ingested products such as toothpaste,” Mary K. Pendergast, then deputy commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration, wrote on Oct. 27, 1997. Learning how diethylene glycol, a syrupy poison used in some antifreeze, ended up in Haitian fever medicine might “prevent this tragedy from happening again,” she wrote.

The F.D.A.’s mission ultimately failed. By the time an F.D.A. agent visited the suspected manufacturer, the plant was shut down and Chinese companies said they bore no responsibility for the mass poisoning.

Ten years later it happened again, this time in Panama. Chinese-made diethylene glycol, masquerading as its more expensive chemical cousin glycerin, was mixed into medicine, killing at least 100 people there last year. And recently, Chinese toothpaste containing diethylene glycol was found in the United States and seven other countries, prompting tens of thousands of tubes to be recalled.

The F.D.A.’s efforts to investigate the Haiti poisonings, documented in internal F.D.A. memorandums obtained by The New York Times, demonstrate not only the intransigence of Chinese officials, but also the same regulatory failings that allowed a virtually identical poisoning to occur 10 years later. The cases further illustrate what happens when nations fail to police the global pipeline of pharmaceutical ingredients.

It doesn’t make much sense for a U.S. agency, however well intentioned, to half-heartedly try to track down the cause of the deaths of Haitian children, then throw up its hands in frustration and wait for the next wave of deaths. Recall that this is the government that routinely turns away or deports Haitian refugees fleeing the chaotic violence that has engulfed the country for the past fifteen years. The welfare of Haitians or Panamanians or Bangladeshis is not high on the list of priorities of the F.D.A. or any U.S. government agency--and it's certainly absent from the Chinese government's agenda. The job of investigating and preventing cross-border poisonings is not one that the U.S. is able or motivated to do well. The WHO, or perhaps some not-yet-existent arm of the WTO, would be better positioned for this work. However achieved, more sensible cross-border regulation is needed here, or we’ll be looking at another identical headline in five years.

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