Officials said today that thousands of tubes of contaminated Chinese-made toothpaste were shipped to correctional facilities and hospitals in the Southeast, in a sign that U.S. distribution of the tainted products was wider than initially thought.
Georgia state officials have confirmed to the Associated Press that toothpaste containing the chemical diethylene glycol (DEG), a poison used in some antifreeze products, was purchased by the state and distributed to two state prisons, five state psychiatric hospitals and four juvenile detention facilities. The toothpaste was removed after an alert from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"It's being stored," Rick Beal in the purchasing division of the Georgia Department of Administrative Services told The Associated Press. "It's segregated from their operating supply. 'Do not use' signs are placed on them. And they're pending disposition."
The New York Times reported today that approximately 900,000 tubes of tainted Chinese toothpaste has shown up in prisons, juvenile detention centers and hospitals in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, including some serving the general population.
State officials in Georgia and North Carolina said no illnesses have been reported, and the toothpaste in question is being replaced with brands not manufactured in China.
The report came the same day that a Chinese official defended the safety of his country's exports, taking the rare step of commenting directly on rising fears over Chinese products following toothpaste and tire recalls, as well as reports of food tainted with industrial chemicals and pigs headed for slaughter with bellies full of wastewater.
Wang Xinpei, a spokesman for the Commerce Ministry, said China "has paid great attention" to the issue, especially food safety because it concerns people's health.
"It can be said that the quality of China's exports all are guaranteed," Wang told reporters at a regularly scheduled briefing.
The statement was among Beijing's most public assertions of the safety of its exports since they came under scrutiny earlier this year with the deaths of dogs and cats in North America blamed on Chinese wheat gluten tainted with the chemical melamine.
Since then, U.S. authorities have turned away or recalled toxic fish, juice containing unsafe color additives, and popular toy trains decorated with leaded paint.
Earlier this month, a spokesman for North Carolina's Department of Correction said Pacific brand toothpaste was distributed to prisoners who could not afford to buy a name brand at prison stores. The tubes were taken away after trace amounts of DEG was found in them.
The FDA, which has stopped all imports of toothpaste from China, said DEG in toothpaste "has a low but meaningful risk of toxicity and injury" to children and individuals with kidney or liver disease, among others.
The FDA advised consumers to "avoid using tubes of toothpaste labeled as made in China," according to a statement posted on the agency's Web site.
Officials in Georgia told the Times that their investigation had located almost 6,000 cases of toothpaste containing up to 5 percent of DEG, which were removed from correctional facilities and mental health care centers. The toothpaste had been purchased as long ago as 2002, at 9 cents a tube.
Chinese-made toothpaste has also been banned by numerous countries in North and South America and Asia for containing DEG, a chemical often found in antifreeze which also serves as a low-cost — and sometimes deadly — substitute for glycerin, a sweetener in many drugs.
On Wednesday, three Japanese importers recalled millions of Chinese-made travel toothpaste sets, after they were found to contain as much as 6.2 percent diethylene glycol. No illnesses were reported.
Wang, the Commerce Ministry spokesman, said Chinese experts have already "explained the situation."
He gave no details, although the country's quality watchdog has in the past cited tests from 2000 that it said showed toothpaste containing less than 15.6 percent diethylene glycol was harmless to humans.
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