Friday, November 9, 2007

Drug Ed, the Chinese Way

In between all of this talk about the kids getting sick after sucking on Aqua Dots, we forget the irony in the recent tainted toys scandal from China--this time with the properties that go into GHB. The oddity of all this is that if you are caught dealing or possessing large amounts of elicit drugs in the PRC (and GHB is on the list), you can be executed (typically with a hallow tip bullet to the head). This is the price you pay when the owners (i.e., the stockholders and executives) of your affluent society no longer want to pay the bills for the first world country they live in.

Toys linked to a date-rape drug recalled

Mom describes 48 hours of 'horror' after her toddler ingested Aqua Dots

updated 1:25 p.m. ET, Thurs., Nov. 8, 2007

WASHINGTON - A mother said Thursday she knew something was terribly wrong when her 20-month-old son began to stumble and started vomiting. He had just ingested a popular toy that contains a chemical that turns into a powerful “date rape” drug when eaten.

It was the latest Chinese-made toy pulled from shelves in North America.

Shelby Esses, 30, said her son Jacob fell and went limp after getting into his older sister’s Aqua Dots set, which was recalled Wednesday by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“That’s when we knew what he had eaten and that things were pretty bad,” she told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Aqua Dots, a highly popular holiday toy sold by Australia-based Moose Enterprises, are beads that can be arranged into designs and fused when sprayed with water. The toy was pulled from shelves in North American and Australia after scientists found they contain a chemical that converts into the so-called date rape drug when eaten. Two children in the U.S. and three in Australia were hospitalized after swallowing the beads.

Scientists say a chemical coating on the beads can metabolize into the drug gamma hydroxy butyrate. When eaten, the compound — made from common and easily available ingredients — can induce unconsciousness, seizures, drowsiness, coma and death.

Dr. Matt Jaeger, of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, treated Jacob and said he was very worried when he saw him.

“It was pretty dramatic,” he told ABC. “He was unconscious in this coma for about six hours. And then over the course of just a few minutes, went from being completely asleep to wide awake and playing like nothing ever happened.”

Before the toddler was released from the hospital, his military pilot father crawled around his Jacksonville home, near Little Rock, making sure every Aqua Dot was gone. Buying the toy, popular this Christmas season, turned into a 48-hour “horror” for the toddler and his family, they said.

Meanwhile, toy sets seized in Hong Kong were being tested Thursday, a customs official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of policy. If the tests come back positive for the chemical, suppliers in Hong Kong could face a year in jail and fines of $12,877, she said.

A spokeswoman for the CPSC said Thursday that parents should keep the toy out of children’s’ hands.

“If a child ingests them the glue turns into a toxic substance and it’s very serious,” Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the CPSC, said on CBS’ “Early Show.” “We want parents very much to heed this warning.”

Vallese said two U.S. children had fallen into “comatose” conditions from the Aqua Dots. The children have since recovered, she said.

In Australia, the toys were ordered off store shelves Tuesday when officials learned that a 2-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl were hospitalized after swallowing the beads. A 19-month-old toddler also was being treated.

China’s toy industry came under closer scrutiny earlier this year when Mattel Inc. recalled more than 21 million Chinese-made toys worldwide. Products including Barbie doll accessories and toy cars were pulled off shelves because of concerns about lead paint or tiny detachable magnets that could be swallowed.

Aqua Dots, which are called Bindeez in Australia, were named toy of the year at an industry function in that country.

Retailer Toys “R” Us Inc. said it issued a “stop sale” on the entire Spin Master Aqua Dots product line Tuesday in its North American stores and on its Web site. “We understand that Spin Master and U.S. regulatory authorities are investigating this product and we have asked Spin Master to fully explain what it believes happened,” it said.

Toys “R” Us also pulled the toys in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia after officials in Australia ordered them off shelves.

A company spokeswoman for Moose Enterprises’ Hong Kong office said the production of the toy was outsourced to a mainland Chinese factory. She refused to elaborate and referred all further requests for comment to the company’s head office in Australia.

“Our Hong Kong office is only responsible for operations such as logistics and shipping arrangements, we don’t have any firsthand information,” the employee, who would only give her surname, Lo, told The Associated Press.

Moose Enterprises said Bindeez and Aqua Dots are made at the same factory, which is in Shenzhen in southern Guangdong province. Last week, the government announced an export ban on more than 700 toy factories in the region because of shoddy products.

The company said the product is distributed in 40 countries.

The toys were supposed to use 1,5-pentanediol, a nontoxic compound found in glue, but instead contained the harmful 1,4-butanediol, which is widely used in cleaners and plastics.

The Food and Drug Administration in 1999 declared the chemical a Class I Health Hazard, meaning it can cause life-threatening harm.

Both chemicals are manufactured in China and elsewhere, including by major multinational companies, and are also marketed over the Internet.

It’s not clear why 1,4-butanediol was substituted. However, there is a significant difference in price between the two chemicals. The Chinese online trading platform ChemNet China lists the price of 1,4 butanediol at between about $1,350-$2,800 per metric ton, while the price for 1,5-pentanediol is about $9,700 per metric ton.

It is easy to blame China for all of this, but remember these toys are being made at the behest of Western investors and companies, who relocated/subcontracted in China primarily because of its decreased cost to overhead (and fewer regulations on their businesses and/or subsidiaries that produce, manufacture and/or distribute their products). Not only that, it is wrong to insinuate that this is across the board for every product or industry in China (the textile industry is certainly worse than, say, high tech or financial services). Still, this is not the only industry with quality control difficulties. Here is the Chery Automobile company's top-of-the-line product (and its crash test results in Europe); this first one tested was nearly imported in the US a year ago (before the Chinese government smartly nixed the proposal).

For those in the know, Chery is the standard for mediocrity in the Chinese automobile industry (sort of like where the American auto companies were in terms of quality back in the 1970s), but this illustrates the limitations and weaknesses of Chinese economic growth, particularly for those who think the US is going to be replaced by the PRC as the next world's superpower. I cannot count the number of times I purchased locally-made products during my trips and studies in China, only to find out that they were either fake or diluted (everything from phone cards that contained a quarter of the advertised minutes to alcohol that tasted like mouth wash). It is not the case for most products (well over 90% are perfectly legitimate), but when you run into enough counterfeit or damaged goods, you start to become more guarded about your purchases.

We sometimes ignore the history and have to be reminded that newly industrializing countries are not quality havens, at first. In the US, American steel in the 19th century was considered inferior to the steel being produced in Europe at that time. In the 1960s and '70s, cars from Japan were considered second and third rate products that you could never rely on. The same applied with exported products from South Korea in the 1980s. It typically takes at least a generation or so for a developing economic late comer to advance in terms of quality in its products that is on par with industry and consumer standards in the US. Until then, or until Mattel decides to start making its toys elsewhere (or having US customs officials oversee manufacturing operations in the PRC), which of course will never happen, we are going to be periodically treated to such instances.

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