Tears streaming down her cheeks, Marta Menacho de Gonzalez recalls how she lost her father, mother and father-in-law to a cough syrup contaminated with a toxic substance imported to Panama from China. "It's very painful. The three had gone to seek medical help and were given poison instead," she says, her voice shaking with emotion.
The family also used a toothpaste that has since also been found to be tainted. At least 80 people in Panama died, most of them late last year, after taking medication contaminated with the imported diethylene glycol (DEG), an industrial solvent used for automobile brake fluid and antifreeze. The government puts the number of fatalities at 80 people, and says 39 more are sick, many with kidney problems. But Anabelle Herrera, who heads a victims group, says the numbers are far higher and fears the death toll will climb further.
The group believes at least 110 people died and scores more are seriously ill. "There are many people who died but whose relatives did not report the case," said Herrera. The latest fatality was Blasina de Saavedra who died two weeks ago, eight months after consuming a contaminated cough syrup. The director of Panama's Social Security Fund (SSF) was arrested earlier this month after 14 medicines for cough, allergy and flu produced by the SSF laboratory were found to be contaminated with DEG imported from China.
The arrest followed an extensive investigation in which 353 bodies were exhumed to determine if their deaths were caused by DEG. Chinese officials say the fault lies with companies that bought the diethylene glycol, claiming they misuse the substance, thinking it was glycerol, a widely used sweetener.
In another case, Chinese authorities admitted that toothpaste produced by two companies in eastern China and exported to Panama contained the toxin, but insisted the levels were too low to be harmful to humans. At the beginning of June, the US Food and Drug Administration urged consumers to stay away from Chinese-made toothpaste after finding levels as high as four percent of DEG in the imported products.
Panama's government has budgeted six million dollars to indemnify victims of the toxic substance. But Herrera says some of the surviving victims are in dire need of more aid. "It's a terrible tragedy that has changed the lives of hundreds of families and left irreparable damages and deep scars on the survivors," she said, citing the case of Juan Chan Lee, who had to stop working and has to undergo dialysis five times a day. "He has no money to pay for it and considers he'd be better off dead." Herrera wants Health Minister Camilo Alleyne to be removed from office so he can be investigated in the case. "But it's tough to demand justice and rights when your family is dying."