May 19, 2007
Poisoned Toothpaste in Panama Is Believed to Be From China
By WALT BOGDANICH and RENWICK McLEAN
Diethylene glycol, a poisonous ingredient in some antifreeze, has been found in 6,000 tubes of toothpaste in Panama, and customs officials there said yesterday that the product appeared to have originated in China.
“Our preliminary information is that it came from China, but we don’t know that with certainty yet,” said Daniel Delgado Diamante, Panama’s director of customs. “We are still checking all the possible imports to see if there could be other shipments.”
Some of the toothpaste, which arrived several months ago in the free trade zone next to the Panama Canal, was re-exported to the Dominican Republic in seven shipments, customs officials said. A newspaper in Australia reported yesterday that one brand of the toothpaste had been found on supermarket shelves there and had been recalled.
Diethylene glycol is the same poison that the Panamanian government inadvertently mixed into cold medicine last year, killing at least 100 people. Records show that in that episode the poison, falsely labeled as glycerin, a harmless syrup, also originated in China.
There is no evidence that the tainted toothpaste is in the United States, according to American government officials.
Panamanian health officials said diethylene glycol had been found in two brands of toothpaste, labeled in English as Excel and Mr. Cool. The tubes contained diethylene glycol concentrations of between 1.7 percent and 4.6 percent, said Luis Martínez, a prosecutor who is looking into the shipments.
Health officials say they do not believe the toothpaste is harmful, because users spit it out after brushing, but they nonetheless took it out of circulation.
Mr. Martínez said at a recent news conference that the toothpaste lacked the required health certificates and had entered the market mixed in with products intended for animal consumption.
He said laboratory tests had found up to 4.6 percent diethylene glycol in tubes of Mr. Cool toothpaste. The Excel brand had 2.5 percent.
Miriam Rodríguez, a spokeswoman for the Health Ministry, said she knew of no one who had become sick from using the toothpaste.
Doug Arbesfeld, a spokesman for the United States Food and Drug Administration, said diethylene glycol was not approved for use in toothpaste. Though the F.D.A. has no evidence that the tainted toothpaste slipped into the United States, he added, “We are looking into the situation in Panama.”
Mr. Delgado, the director of Panamanian customs, said the Dominican authorities had been notified to be on the lookout for the suspect toothpaste.
In Panama City, a consumer notified the pharmacy and drugs section of the Health Ministry after seeing that diethylene glycol was listed as an ingredient in toothpaste at a store.
The ministry fined the store $25,000 and ordered it closed for not following proper procedures in putting products up for sale.
The Northern Star, a newspaper in the southeastern Australian city of Lismore, reported yesterday on its Web site that the Excel brand of toothpaste had been found in a chain of supermarkets and taken off the shelves immediately.
Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported that a Chinese factory not certified to make pharmaceutical ingredients had sold 46 barrels of syrup containing diethylene glycol that had been falsely labeled as 99.5 percent pure glycerin. That syrup passed through several trading companies before ending up in Panama, where it was mixed into 260,000 bottles of cold medicine.
At least 100 people died as a direct result, according to Dimas Guevara, a Panamanian prosecutor who is leading the investigation into the deaths.
Over the years, counterfeiters have found it financially advantageous to substitute diethylene glycol, a sweet-tasting syrup, for its chemical cousin glycerin, which is usually much more expensive.
R. M. Koster contributed reporting from Panama City.