The US government warned consumers to avoid using toothpaste made in China because it may contain a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze.
Out of caution, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said on Friday that people should throw away toothpaste with labeling that it was made in China. The FDA is worried that these products could contain diethylene glycol (DEG).
The agency is not aware of any reports in the US of poisoning from toothpaste, but it did find the antifreeze ingredient in a shipment at the US border and at two retail stores: a Dollar Plus store in Florida and a Todo A Peso store in Puerto Rico, a US territory.
Officials said they are concerned primarily about toothpaste sold at bargain retail outlets. DEG, the ingredient in question, is used as a lower-cost sweetener and thickening agent.
The highest concentration of the chemical found in toothpaste so far was between 3 percent and 4 percent, but health officials said it does not belong in toothpaste even in small concentrations.
The FDA increased its scrutiny of toothpaste made in China because of reports of contamination in several nations, including Panama.
The agency is particularly concerned about chronic exposure to DEG in children and in people with kidney or liver disease.
Agency officials said they had no estimate of how many tubes of tainted toothpaste might have made it into the US.
"Our concern today is potentially about all toothpaste that comes in from China," the FDA's Deborah Autor said. "Our estimate is that China makes up about US$3.3 million of the US$2 billion US toothpaste market."
The agency also issued an import alert on Friday for all dental products containing DEG. The alert means that toothpaste from China will be stopped at the border, she said.
Companies that make brands previously found with DEG will have to prove the toothpaste is free of the chemical before it is allowed into the country. Meanwhile, all other brands of Chinese toothpaste will be stopped for testing, which the agency has been doing since May 23.
The alert states that DEG has been improperly used in a variety of sedatives, syrups and cough medicines worldwide. Most recently, a cough syrup containing DEG resulted in more than 40 deaths in Panama last September.
The alert says the agency found DEG in three products manufactured by Goldcredit International Trading in China. The products are Cooldent Fluoride, Cooldent Spearmint and Cooldent ICE. Analysis of the products revealed that they contained between 3 percent and 4 percent DEG.
The agency also found the chemical in one product manufactured by Suzhou City Jinmao Daily Chemical Co in China. Analysis of that product, Shir Fresh Mint Fluoride Paste, found that it contained about 1 percent DEG.
In Panama, the director of the Social Security Fund was arrested on Friday in the deaths of more than 100 patients in recent months due to contaminated medicinal syrup.
Rene Luciani's arrest came after two former fund directors, Juan Jovane and Rolando Villalaz, were taken into custody on Thursday in the same case of syrup contaminated with diethylene glycol imported from China.
Prosecutor Dimas Guevara has led for the past five months the exhumation of 353 bodies in order to check if their deaths were related to one of some 14 medicines for cough, allergy and flu produced by the SSF laboratory and contaminated with diethylene glycol.