You want poison with that?

Sorry for the late start today. I had to run my wounded VW out to the body shop, and came home in the closest thing to camouflage Detroit has to offer — a silver Chrysler Sebring, rented from Enterprise. I felt invisible, driving home on the freeway, just another auto-industry drone in a car the color of cement. Automatic transmission, too. Every so often the government posts a list of most-stolen cars, and bland ones like the Sebring are always right up there. If you were going to rob a bank, would you nick a red Ferrari for your getaway, or a black Corvette? Of course not — you’d pick the one in my garage right now, merge into traffic and never be seen again.

Sitting at a light, I saw four PT Cruisers pass through, not in a caravan, just four drivers who chose PT Cruisers. Kate has a new game she plays in the car; when you see a VW Beetle, you say, “punchbuggy!” and punch the driver on the arm. PT Cruisers are known as “PT bruisers” and get you a squeeze. If she were strong enough, or I were easily bruised, my arm would be purple by now. Not so many punchbuggies; scores of PT bruisers.

Not much to report from the weekend, so let’s get right to the bloggage, which has a bummer theme today:

In my night-shift work as a news farmer, this story has been one of the most fascinating — and disturbing — to track. It’s still virtually ignored outside of the NYT/WSJ journalism orbit, but I predict that sooner or later it’ll get some major ink, perhaps when a dozen or so American kids die of glycol poisoning from their cough syrup.

The story is, specifically, about how sweeteners tainted with glycol, a poison found in antifreeze, are finding their way into pharmaceutical and personal-care products like cough syrup and toothpaste. You dog owners know why you’re warned to keep pets away from antifreeze spills — glycol tastes sweet. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous factory owners, primarily in China, find it an acceptable way to extend supplies of glycerin, used to make the medicine go down easier. At least 100 people died from taking poisoned cough syrup in Panama late last year. It was recently found in some dollar-store-brand toothpastes in Miami, and in some counterfeit name brands elsewhere. The first story linked above is how the Panama case is an echo of a similar one that happened in 1996 in Haiti, where 88 children died, and every effort to track the problem ingredient back to China ended in a brick wall. Depending on your level of ambient cynicism, it’s possible to find a certain pitch-black humor in these comedies of errors:

Federal investigators sought help from senior Chinese drug regulators, who promised to help find the manufacturer, but said it “will take time,” records show.

When another month passed without any word from either regulators or Sinochem, the embassy tried again. Chinese regulators said they had done nothing to find the factory, according to a confidential State Department telegram from September 1996.

Sinochem did finally offer the manufacturer’s name: the Tianhong Fine Chemicals Factory in the city of Dalian in northeastern China. But Sinochem “refused” to provide an address, saying it was illegible. A telephone number would have to suffice, it said.

That, too, was unproductive. When American investigators called the plant manager, Zhang Gang, they were told he was not available. Send a fax, they were told. That did not work either. “The phone was always busy,” investigators reported.

Finally, they got Mr. Zhang on the phone, but he, too, refused to give out his factory’s address.

All of this would merely be one of those tragedies that happens elsewhere — yet another South American bus plunge — if it weren’t for the far scarier implications. As we all know, the world’s marketplaces are global now. Coincidentally, the NYT had a story Saturday about Sara Lee’s efforts to maintain a semblance of oversight over their ingredient supply chain, which you’d think wouldn’t be so hard, but when you’re shopping the planet for the best price on gums, stabilizers and “foaming agents,” it gets complicated. A lot of dogs and cats paid the final price for adulteration of their food earlier this year, and if you think it’ll be different because you walk on two legs, wake up and smell the pound cake. Or, more likely, the “putrefying bacteria” on that Chinese seafood.

I don’t know why I get so irritated when I read stuff like this. Probably because Asia is such a glorious example of “the market” that is supposed to spare us the horrors of government intrusion like the FDA. Wouldn’t you love to live in this place of such glorious freedom?

As Nguyen Van Ninh needles his chopsticks through a steaming bowl of Vietnam’s famous noodle soup, he knows it could be spiked with formaldehyde. But the thought of slurping up the same chemical used to preserve corpses isn’t enough to deter him.

I’m also flattened by those numbers. Nearly 90 kids dead in Haiti. A hundred in Panama. How many did the Tylenol killer get? Seven, eight? And the country freaked out over it — rightly so. Food and drug safety in much of the rest of the world is approximately where it was in this country when Upton Sinclair was writing about meatpacking. And now we’re shopping there.

Not that I wish to bum you out. (Here’s a funny Jon Carroll column to lighten your mood.) Why look, it’s nearly lunchtime. Have a nice day.

Posted at 10:52 am in Current events |

19 responses to “You want poison with that?”

  1. LA mary said on June 18, 2007 at 11:10 am

    Aside from all the tainted food, the slave labor and destruction of the environment in China inspire me to boycott all things Chinese, but then I realize this would be nearly impossible. Car parts, fabric, ingredients, are not labled, just where the item was manufactured.
    Best idea for food is to eat unprocessed stuff. Pray they haven’t fed the chicken or fish melamine, and that the vegetables weren’t grown downstream from where the pigs poop.

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  2. nancy said on June 18, 2007 at 11:29 am

    True, Mary, and I do avoid processed food in general, but not in totality. For most Americans, a certain amount of processing is simply unavoidable, unless you want to spend all your time in the kitchen.

    That’s the other thing that bugs me about this story — the economic factor. (There’s a reason 88 dead kids in Haiti can fly so far under the radar, and 100 in Panama is just a brief buried in the A section.) As usual, it’s the poor who take it in the shorts, the ones who shop in the dodgy stores and markets where you find stuff like counterfeit branded toothpaste and the cheapest-possible generic cough syrups. Whereas we educated folks go to places like Whole Foods, where they can tell you the pedigree and living conditions of every piece of salmon in the case. And yeah, they don’t call it Whole Paycheck for nothing, but it’s so fresh and good, so we pay with a shrug.

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  3. Peter said on June 18, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Well, this was a nice depressing way to start the week.

    Jon Carroll’s column was really the last straw. Has this administration FINALLY left no sense of decency? Have we FINALLY hit rock bottom? I know the GSA isn’t responsible for the Katrina and Iraq debacles, but seriously, did they go out of their way to find such a loser for the job? Perhaps it was always like this, but at least some people who didn’t have morals or ethics at least were discreet about it. What a bunch of classless hacks! OK, maybe it’s the melamine talking….

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  4. Jay Small said on June 18, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    Kate’s game is a derivative of something we played as kids, except we called it “Slug Bug,” and instead of hitting the driver we’d hit each other.

    Of course, I was the youngest of four siblings, and always rode in the middle of the back seat surrounded by hostiles. So I tended to get the worst end of the deal — especially when we passed a VW dealership, which was generally an excuse for Gatling-gun-style “Slug Bug” repetition until all arms were sore.

    Someone in that back seat eventually invented “Slug Bug No Return,” which was a way of saying if you see 50 Beetles on a lot together, you get only one slug, but the other people in the car can’t slug you back.

    I’m reminded of this every time someone says things were better in the old days. At least now I don’t go around with “Slug Bug” bruises on my arm.

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  5. Dorothy said on June 18, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    Ahh punchbuggy. My kids used to do that too. I still think it when I see a VW go down the road.

    We had a lovely vacation; however I came home to absolutely terrible news: a fixture inside the master bathroom toilet broke and flooded the bathroom, our bedroom, and of course it leaked below to the family room and the office. Major repairs are heading our way. We have to take the house off the market for a short while. What a complete mess! Thank God for homeowners’ insurance.

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  6. John said on June 18, 2007 at 3:00 pm

    To be fair to the Chinese, even the Austrian wine industry has had their brush up with antifreeze.

    My kids (24 and 21) still play punch buggy (no punch back!).

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  7. Connie said on June 18, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    Slug bug, no backs at my house. And you have to call out the color.

    I am about to go pick up my minivan at the body shop, promised for last Thursday, grrrr. I have been alternating between a rusty 93 Ford 150 with 80,000 on the odometer, and a dented 93 Chevy Lumina with 140,000 miles.

    ANd I just had an emergency install of a new well. That wasn’t in my budget.

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  8. Danny said on June 18, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    Slug Bug? Punch Buggy? PT Bruiser?

    This is why the state motto of every midwestern state should be “Bring Something to Do.”

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  9. alex said on June 18, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Slug bug. In my day they called it “perdiddle,” and it applied to VWs in daylight, missing headlights at night. Great way to keep rivalrous siblings constructively occupied, and the fact that it was a license to brawl made it almost as much fun as the occasional license to smoke and drink. Sure must suck growing up these days.

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  10. LA mary said on June 18, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    Hey, Alex. It was perdiddle in NJ too. Perdiddle and no returns.

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  11. LA mary said on June 18, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    I want to know why anyone cares about Bob Barker retiring. I think he’s a nasty old putz.

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  12. alex said on June 18, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    His image pretty much went down the can several years ago when one of the tarty-looking broads who smiles and gesticulates over the prizes accused him of quid pro quo sexual harassment. A generation ago that would have been certain death to his show, but considering the cousinfuckers that doubtless constitute the majority of his audience, it’s not like anyone could be terribly bothered by it.

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  13. LA mary said on June 18, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    I loved his explanation of one of the harassment situations. He said it was “two middle aged people in a consensual relationship.” Bob had a good 25 or thirty years on the woman who was in her forties. Middle aged? How about nasty old geezer?

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  14. Mark Walter said on June 18, 2007 at 8:24 pm

    Really enjoyed it today! Thanks for the backyard pic last week too.


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  15. Joe Kobiela said on June 18, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Not that it relly means anything but Bob Barker was a fighter pilot in ww-2 Flew Navy Coursairs, come to think of it Ed Mcmann, Dan Rowan,from Rowan and Martin, and Wayne Rothgeb, who was a tv guy in Fort Wayne also flew in ww-2

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  16. brian stouder said on June 18, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Jimmy Stewart, too…and Ted Williams, yes?

    And Eddie Arnold (Oliver on Green Acres) was a hero, decorated for his valor under fire at the bloody amphibious landings at Tarawa – but he rarely ever spoke of it (considering the Marines who got killed in the surf there the real heroes)

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  17. brian stouder said on June 18, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    Make that Eddie Albert!

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  18. Dorothy said on June 19, 2007 at 8:11 am

    Hey Connie – we had a 93 Lumina too, until about a month ago. We donated it to Goodwill because we could not convince anyone to buy it. It was ugly grey, no hubcaps, and had a front seat that rocked a little. Oh it also had 209,000+ miles on it. Mike nicknamed it the “Babe Magnet” in jest and it stuck. Of course we shortened that to “BM.” It was so appropriate. But it ran very well! We bought it used when Laura turned 16.

    I should have called MTV to see if they wanted it for Pimp My Ride.

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  19. Joe Kobiela said on June 19, 2007 at 8:27 am

    Jimmy stewart flew b-24 out of England and Ted Williams flew fighters in Korea also.

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