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.