Ten years ago, the FDA tried and failed to identify the driver of the deadly Chinese Poison Train. The investigation started when diethylene glycol produced by a state-owned company was mixed into fever medicine, killing 88 Haitian children.
The F.D.A.’s efforts to investigate the Haiti poisonings, documented in internal F.D.A. memorandums obtained by The New York Times, demonstrate not only the intransigence of Chinese officials, but also the same regulatory failings that allowed a virtually identical poisoning to occur 10 years later. The cases further illustrate what happens when nations fail to police the global pipeline of pharmaceutical ingredients.
The Chinese Poison Train hides behind a veil of secrecy and lies, after the jump…
FDA agents examining the Haitian deaths traced the poison to a German broker. The broker had been supplied by a Dutch company, which sold 72 barrels of poison to Haiti; when FDA agents arrived, they found an additional 66 barrels of diethylene glycol labeled as glycerine. The barrels had been purchased from Sinochem, a Chinese exporter owned by the state. Sinochem refused to identify its supplier.
After months of trying, the U.S. embassy successfully badgered the Chinese into releasing a phone number for the supplier, the Tianhong Fine Chemicals Factory. The FDA tried to call, but the Chinese factory, employing the tactics of a fifth grader dodging a call to his parents from the school principal, kept saying that the factory manager was unavailable. When finally reached for comment, the manager would only say that “there had been no cases in China of poisoning resulting from the ingestion.” Last year, 18 Chinese citizens died after consuming medicine tainted with diethylene glycol.
The FDA went back to Sinochem and had the following discussion:
Sinochem: We have two certificates showing that the barrels were safe.
FDA: May we see them?
Sinochem: This conversation is over.
The FDA clearly understood the threat posed by diethylene glycol. FDA Deputy Commissioner Mary Pendergast presciently warned back in 1997: “The U.S. imports a lot of Chinese glycerin and it is used in ingested products such as toothpaste.”
The Chinese Poison Train is still out there, lurking on a container ship headed our way. Nobody knows when it will strike again. — CAREY GREENBERG-BERGER