Diethylene Glycol Reappears—Again and Again and Again...
If history has taught us anything,* it's that rogue companies will substitute the renal toxin diethylene glycol (DEG) for the more-expensive glycerin in their products—regardless of the known, lethal consequences.
The latest incident involves a Nigerian drug manufacturer, which sold a DEG-contaminated teething formula ("My Pikin") that killed 25 infants and led to the hospitalization of 10 others, according to Reuters. Reports of possible contamination began 1 week ago, and the government has since shut down the responsible company, Barewa Pharmaceuticals, in Lagos.
A list of previous discoveries of DEG in consumer goods:
- Last year, Chinese-made toothpaste was found to be contaminated with low levels of DEG. The tubes, some of which were marketed for pediatric use, were found throughout Latin America, Canada, and the United States. Most of the contaminated toothpaste in the United States was imported through Long Beach, CA. Approximately 78,000 tubes were sold and distributed by at least one importer between December 2005 and May 2007 to prisons, luxury hotels, hospitals, and discount stores. In March of this year, a Los Angeles city attorney filed criminal charges against executives from 2 LA-based importers of the tainted toothpaste. However, it is believed that the low concentration of DEG in the toothpaste, which is unlikely to be consumed in significant quantities, did not result in reportable adverse events.
- In 2006, more than 100 Panamanians died after consuming cough syrup made with contaminated Chinese glycerin. The NYT traced 46 barrels of imported glycerin stock, labeled as 99.5% pure but containing ~24% DEG, from a Panamanian port to Spain to the Taxing Glycerine Factory in the Yangtze Delta.
- In 1998, 36 Indian children developed acute renal failure after consuming a DEG-tainted cough syrup (17.5%), which was produced by a company in Gurgaon; 33 of the children died.
- Between the fall of 1995 and July 1996, 109 children in Haiti experienced acute renal failure after consuming a locally made acetaminophen syrup that was tainted with DEG (14.4%); 91 children died.
- Beginning in 1990 and for several years thereafter, unexplained renal failure was identified in several hundred Bengalese children; 70% died in hospital. Renal failure was believed to be due to the ingestion of paracetamol elixir that was contaminated with DEG.
- In 1990, 47 children died in Nigeria (again) after ingesting paracetamol syrup that was contaminated with DEG.
In 1986, 14 hospital inpatients died in India after being given glycerol that was contaminated with DEG (18.5%).
- In 1937, more than 100 US citizens—many children—died after consuming Elixir Sulfanilamide, a raspberry-flavored antibiotic syrup manufactured by the S. E. Massengill Pharmaceutical Company of Bristol, TN. The difficult-to-dissolve antibiotic was mixed with DEG by the company's head chemist, Harold Cole Watkins, who reportedly tested the elixir only for its appearance and palatability. The catastrophic event led to the passage of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
While frequently, but mistakenly, described as a component of engine coolants, DEG is chemically related to a common antifreeze ingredient, ethylene glycol. DEG is a cheap substitute for glycerin in the manufacture of consumer products.
* Other than, "you can kill anybody," according to Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II.
Picture of bottle of DEG-tainted Elixir Sulfanilamide from the FDA.