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Odds & Sods
Brushing Your Teeth with a Deadly Glycol
Wednesday, 23rd May, 2007  - Richard Farmer

It looked like a great deal on the website of Deals Direct – the place for those who love a bargain: a box with 60 packs of Mr Cool toothpaste with toothbrush for $44.95 – just 75 cents each pair. There is just one little worry for those brushing their pearly whites with Mr Cool.

In Panama authorities have found the brand laced with up to 4.6 percent diethylene glycol, an industrial solvent regularly found in anti-freeze and the chemical which killed more than 100 people in Panama last year when mixed into cold medicine. Mr Cool is no longer listed for sale on Deals Direct while Excel, another cheap toothpaste with diethylene glycol in place of fluoride, was withdrawn last week from the shelves of the NSW Northern Rivers supermarkets Farmer Charlies.

But do not expect to find details of these product withdrawals on Australian Government websites. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is warning pharmaceutical manufacturers, suppliers, drug repackers, and health professionals who compound medications to be especially vigilant in assuring that glycerin, a sweetener commonly used worldwide in liquid over-the-counter and prescription drug products, is not contaminated with diethylene glycol, our health officials have been silent. As a spokesperson for the Therapeutic Goods Administration told the Northern Star, "they could not order a nation-wide recall of the product because it did not claim to have medical benefits, despite the fact it contained a substance banned in food."

The official line of the Australian bureaucracy seems to be that if the little kiddies swallow the poisoned toothpaste, it is not our responsibility. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, the Honourable Chris Pearce MP, is the politician charged with controlling the recall of dangerous products but he has issued no press statement on the subject. The ACCC, which reports to Mr Pearce on such matters, does not have Mr Cool and Excel on its list of product recalls. Nor could I find a reference on the Deals Direct site alerting any previous purchaser to the potential danger of any Mr Cool that might still be in their possession.

The New York Times reported this week that customs officials in Panama said that they had discovered diethylene glycol in 6,000 tubes of toothpaste which was being sold under the English brand names Mr. Cool and Excel. The story said there have been no reports of deaths tied to toothpaste containing the chemical. It continued...

Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director for the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the F.D.A., said diethylene glycol levels found in some Panamanian toothpaste was nearly 50 times greater than what is deemed safe. "Kids swallow toothpaste," Dr. Throckmorton said. "That is going to be a concern to you."

Suspicion over China’s role in the tainted toothpaste and cold medicine comes just weeks after investigators blamed two Chinese companies for intentionally shipping pet food ingredients contaminated with an industrial chemical to the United States, leading to one of the largest pet food recalls in history. The cases are fueling mounting concerns about the quality and safety of China’s food and drug exports and threatening to turn into a trade dispute.

After initially rejecting any Chinese role in the tainted pet food, Beijing officials banned the use of melamine, an industrial chemical used in fertilizer and plastics, from vegetable proteins. Melamine and several related chemicals had been discovered in contaminated pet food ingredients. Chinese officials also promised to overhaul its food safety regulations and tighten export controls.

Indeed, the government seems to have responded quickly to reports last weekend about contaminated toothpaste. Hu Keyu, the manager at Goldcredit International, said investigators had talked to him over the weekend because his company was the first to sell and export toothpaste under the brand label Mr. Cool. But he and his staff insisted that Goldcredit never exported to Panama, and that this year the company had exported only a small amount of Mr. Cool toothpaste to Australia. Goldcredit executives said they did not sell toothpaste under the Excel brand name.

Mr. Hu said his company exports toothpaste, toothbrushes, glue and other goods to the United States, Europe and other regions but that his company no longer uses diethylene glycol. He said, however, that most toothpaste makers in this region use diethylene glycol because it is considered a cheap substitute for glycerin.

"You know, if you’re in the export market, the margins are small, so people use the substitute," he said. "Even one percent or half a percent price difference can matter to people here."

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