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Panama spits out 'poison' Chinese toothpaste

A brighter smile with diethylene glycol

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Two brands of Chinese-made toothpastes were last week pulled from shelves in Panama after authorities discovered they contained potentially-fatal diethylene glycol, AP reports.

Diethylene glycol is commonly used as a cheap substitute for glycerine, and in this case apparently to prevent the offending toothpastes from drying out.

In large doses it can be fatal, as attested by the deaths of around 50 people in Panama last year who drank a cough medicine which, instead of pharmaceutical grade glycerine, used diethylene glycol as the suspension agent.

In this case, however, the diethylene glycol was apparently clearly labelled on the "Excel" and "Mr Cool" toothpastes, supplied by the Hengxiang-based Danyang Chengshi Household Chemical Co. After a sharp-eyed customer spotted the offending ingredient, University of Panama experts confirmed it comprised around 2.5 per cent of the toothpastes - not considered enough to pose a health risk, but sufficient to provoke the powers that be to warn consumers off the products.

Danyang Chengshi Household Chemical Co's general manager Chen Yaozu confirmed to AP that his firm had exported toothpaste containing diethylene glycol to Panama, but said the chemical was "permitted under Chinese rules and was safe in small amounts". He added: "I can say I am very confident about our product's quality."

If Chen's confidence is justified, then he has nothing to fear from a Chinese probe aimed at cleaning up the image of the country's related export markets - valued at $30bn. An unnamed official at the Danyang branch of China's food and drug inspection agency "confirmed the investigation into the toothpaste suppliers, but gave no details".

The Panamanian toothpaste scare is just the latest in a long line of diethylene glycol-based health alerts. Back in 1937, the Elixir Sulfanilamide Incident claimed more than 100 lives in 15 US states, prompting the rapid introduction of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

In 1990 diethylene glycol killed 339 Bangladeshi children who took a paracetamol syrup containing contaminated glycerine, while a similar product did for 85 Haitian kids in 1995-6.

In case you were wondering just how nasty diethylene glycol can be, the Haitian cases were mostly characterised by "nonspecific febrile prodromal illness followed within two weeks by anuric renal failure, pancreatitis, hepatitis, and neurologic dysfunction progressing to coma". ®

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