The entire melamine contamination debacle I find interesting. Especially with respect to how the United States government, our government, seems to be sitting on the sidelines doing very little with the President saying nothing publicly. Meanwhile the Chinese government represses basic freedoms of the people injured by denying them freedom of speech to publicly complain about the manner in which they are being treated. At this point a good public airing is what is needed to expose those officials of the government that turned a blind eye to what was going on.

But let’s run through what occurred and also let’s look back historically at the subject of contaminated products. U.S. consumers believe all they need to be worried about are products that are imported from China. History makes this a dangerous assumption.

We can’t trust the Made in (name any country) labels.

If history is a guide we should not forget poisoning deaths in Panama due to a cough syrup substitution with diethylene glycol, an inexpensive industrial solvent that is toxic to kidneys and the central nervous system. According to one writer this chemical is the reason for American’s drug laws. 

From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine, Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker, the New York Times, May 6, 2007.

“Over the years, the poison has been loaded into all varieties of medicine — cough syrup, fever medication, injectable drugs — a result of counterfeiters who profit by substituting the sweet-tasting solvent for a safe, more expensive syrup, usually glycerin, commonly used in drugs, food, toothpaste and other products.

Toxic syrup has figured in at least eight mass poisonings around the world in the past two decades. Researchers estimate that thousands have died. In many cases, the precise origin of the poison has never been determined. But records and interviews show that in three of the last four cases it was made in China, a major source of counterfeit drugs. “

First the Chinese government refused and dismissed the civil lawsuits filed by the parents with infant children sickened by the melamine contaminated infant formula. When they had the backbone to object and scheduled a news conference to air their side the parents of sick kids were detained.  They were later released. The dairy companies responsible offered little of no compensation to the victims.  The Chinese government brought criminal charges against the corporate executives responsible but then kept the testimony and legal proceedings under wrap, more than likely to protect corrupt corporate and government officials.

Media reported Tien admitted in court testimony on Wednesday that she had known of problems with the company’s products for two months before she told authorities.

Three other executives were reported by the China Daily newspaper to be facing similar charges, and possible execution if convicted.”

The southeastern part of the U.S. is experiencing health problems with Chinese drywall used in homes. Containing a very high level of sulphur the drywall is being removed and replaced. The problem appears to be mainly from drywall imported during the years 2004-2005. The drywall problem emits several sulfur compounds including sulphur dioxide or hydrogen sulfide.

“The contaminated Chinese drywall may be emitting one of several sulfur compounds including sulfur dioxide or hydrogen sulfide. While exposure to fumes from sulfur dioxide can create irritation and breathing disorders, exposure to hydrogen sulfide can be deadly. Exposure to 50 parts per million of hydrogen sulfide for more than ten minutes can cause extreme irritation. Inhalation of 500 to 1,000 parts per million can cause unconsciousness and death through respiratory paralysis and asphyxiation, according to environmental experts. “

“However, the Environmental Protection Agency confirms that there is a problem with drywall, but how widespread it is and the severity of the problem is unknown.

“It is the drywall, and from what I gather, it is causing a problem with copper and specifically air conditioning units,” said Dawn Harris-Young, spokeswoman from the EPA Region 4 in Atlanta.

The Florida Health Department is handling the issue and keeping the EPA apprised, she said.”

And who can forget the pet food melamine contamination scandal?

The most recent concern surfacing has to do with Chinese imported fish. China is the world’s largest producer of farm-raised seafood. The U.S. imports shrimp, catfish, tilapia, salmon and other fish products totaling more than $2 billion.  

“But shipments of filthy and contaminated fish from China continue to be detained at U.S. ports, exposing holes in a food-safety system that analysts say is undermined by a lack of resources, corruption and unscrupulous businesses that will sometimes mislabel or reroute goods through other countries.

Last month, 26 containers of shrimp, crawfish, tilapia and other fish from China were refused entry in Long Beach and other U.S. seaports. Inspectors cited a variety of reasons: salmonella, unsafe additives, unapproved drugs and labeling problems, according to FDA records on its website.”

“With the recent adulterations with melamine of Chinese milk and milk products (like White Rabbit chocolates) and foods with other milk-derived ingredients, we wonder if we will ultimately hear that a compound from fertilizer, cyanuric acid, is part of the mix.

Melamine is a cheap chemical that gives a false positive in typical protein assays; therefore, it can be used to make food appear to contain more protein than it actually does. You'll often hear of cyanuric acid being referred to as a pool chemical as it helps stabilize chlorine donors in the sun, but it is often used as a nitrogen source in fertilizers. It tends to concentration in wheat gluten and that's how it may end up together with melamine in some food products.

What is not mentioned too often in the press is that melamine alone is remarkably safe - an FDA report notes that the oral dose required to kill 50% of test rats, or LD50, is 3161 mg/kg body weight - an astronomical dose. Cyanuric acid is even less toxic, with a reported LD50 of 7700 mg/kg. While the LD50 is a single-dose, acute toxicity test, even prolonged daily dosing of either compound is relatively safe with a no-observed-adverse-effect-level (known as NOAEL) of 63 mg/kg daily for 13 weeks in rats.

So, while you don't want to ingest either compound unnecessarily, they become much more problematic when combined. Melamine and cyanuric acid polymerize and precipitate out in the kidney, causing renal failure and death. In May 2007, I posted on one of the best journalism stories on the topic, by David Brown at the Washington Post, who wrote on the pet food contamination episodes then.”

Past predictions (ScienceBlogs.com) have been recently confirmed that combining melamine and cyanuric acid is sort of like the fen-phen combination.  Chinese companies import cyanuric acid to the United States.  In the U.S. a 9-month old girl in Hendersonville, North Carolina developed stomach ulcers from being fed Enfamil Lipil with Iron.  ABC Channel 13 North Carolina reported that removing Enfamil from her diet solved the problem.

The World Health Organization came out with its report finds melamine not only toxic to humans but a likely carcinogenic.

Melamine testing kits have recently been developed by Romer Labs in Missouri.

If we think back to President Nixon’s warming of relations with the Chinese government we are reminded of his idea to do business with Mao Zedong and the Chinese and they would be forced to make significant reforms. And perhaps that is why Washington set’s quietly; waiting for the World Wide Web and the forces of a more educated society in China to force change in China. Is it naïve on my part to suggest bloggers can instigate changes in China? Perhaps but realistically it’s worth a try.   It’s my opinion that free speech in China is a necessary component to China’s participation in a world economy. Allowing internal dissent would go a long way to establishing an early warning system for the consuming world along with exposing corrupt government officials and corporate executives who show more interest in profit than they do for the value of human life.  In the equation of how to make products safer, free speech is indeed a necessary ingredient to membership in the world-wide economy. With freedom of expression missing in China those responsible for melamine and other food product contaminations will pay the price with economic depression and isolation.

So what does China need to do to participate?

1. Allow freedom of speech.

2. Free those dissidents detained or imprisoned.

3. Allow civil lawsuits for damages to proceed in Court.

4. In civil damage cases allow trial by a jury of peers.

5. Allow trial attorneys to represent clients without hindrance from the Chinese Government.

6. Make criminal trials open to the public.

7. Create a better system of regulatory reform in the area of food and drugs.

8. Remove, prosecute and punish corrupt government officials and corporate executives.

9. Make the Chinese governing process transparent to the general public and to the world.

10. Make the governing process accountable.

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