The Panamanian who brought China to its knees
It would probably be difficult to identify a single reasonably-informed consumer anywhere in the world who is not aware of the difficulties that Chinese manufacturers have experienced lately with respect to the safety of their products. Whether one is talking Thomas the Train, SUV tires, childrens' jewelry, Hot Wheels cars, toothpaste, or dozens of other products, the Chinese have taken a beating over quality control. The government even executed its own top regulator after convicting him of taking bribes.
It may have been inevitable given the pervasiveness of the problem, but it turns out that the catalyst to the recognition of safety problems in China was not a European safety investigator, a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commissioner, a trial lawyer pursuing a civil action or any other "typical" Erin Brockovitch character. The hero was a mid-level bureaucrat in Panama; a 51-year old Kuna Indian who grew oup on a Caribbean reservation. The New York Times edition for October 1, 2007, identified Eduardo Arias as the man who humbled the most powerful consumer product producer of our age.
Mr. Arias was shopping for blank CDs on a Saturday morning when he noticed the terms "diethylene glycol" on a 59 cent tube of toothpaste. The latter is a sweet-tasting and cheap, but poisonous antifreeze additive that had killed a number of Panamanian kids when it was substituted for glycerin in cough syrup. A mid-level government employee who writes environmental reports, Mr. Arias was struck that the toxic additive was present in consumer products that were being promiently displayed for sale.
Arias bought one tube of the toothpaste (which was being purchased all across the globe, to be handed out to prison inmates, hotel patrons and various other hospitals and institutions). Assuming that complaining to the store would have no impact, he used his own vacation day to walk the tube to the crowded Health Ministry office in Panama City. Workers there refused to accept the toothpaste and directed him to a second, equally crowded office. When workers there attempted to send him to a third--very remote--office, Arias objected and insisted on filing a report with the Ministry. He filled out a form and left the toothpaste with the Ministry, half-convinced that nothing would come of his wasted vacation day.
Three days later, Panama's top health officalmade a public announcement of the problem and within a few weeks, 24 contaminated brands had been identified in Canada and 16 in New Zealand. Japan identified 20 million tubes of toxic toothpaste, and it was identified in the United States being sold under counterfeited brand names Colgate and Sensodyne. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, claimed that the product was a legitimate thickener and did not present a health concern. Health officials outside China were quoted describing this claim as "ridiculous". Canadian authorities found a concentration of the toxin as great as fourteen percent in some tubes, and of course the same additive had previously killed a number of children in Panama and Nigeria. In July of 2007, the Chinese government finally ordered Chinese manufacturers to stop using the additive in toothpaste. It is interesting to speculate just how much longer this problem would have continued, and how many other people would have been poisoned, if Eduardo Arias had not used his vacation day to bring the toxic toothpaste to the authorities' attention.