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Is China Slowly Poisoning the World?

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Yesterday the New York Times confirmed what I reported here at OpEd News last week, that the Chinese contaminant found in pet food, melamine, is not particularly toxic.

It is virtually impossible to reconcile the number of animals made sick or killed by the pet food contamination originating in China with the fact that the major “contaminant” does not cause kidney failure, or death. So what is sickening pets, and what about the fact that farm animal feed has also been found to be contaminated?

When melamine was first reported to be the source of the poison in pet food, my first reaction as a pet owner and scientist was to check the material safety data sheet (MSDS). This is the official safety documentation that chemical companies must ship with their products.

Melamine is listed as causing skin, lung and eye irritation, but it is not particularly toxic. Indeed, even prolonged exposure is not known to aggravate existing medical conditions. With just a little bit of digging, the New York Times found that farmers in China have been using melamine for years to artificially boost protein ratings in low-quality plant protein products. One signature characteristic of protein, unlike fats and carbohydrates, is that it contains a significant amount of nitrogen. Melamine is a nitrogen-rich compound that fools the color test in laboratories to erroneously report high levels of protein when in fact little or no protein needs to be present.

Unless there is something important about melamine toxicity that is not known by scientists, then it is probable that melamine is not the major or only culprit in the pet food illnesses and deaths.

So then what exactly is causing the recent spate of pet illnesses and deaths? As a scientist I must initially conclude that there is not enough data to come to a firm conclusion. However, that does not mean that we cannot make well educated assumptions. Because melamine is not particularly toxic and is not known to cause kidney failure, it is logical to assume that there are other contaminants in pet food in addition to the melamine.

Obviously, Chinese farmers, chemical producers, and food additive distributors have no compunction against putting harmful or even toxic compounds into products that are to be consumed by either animals or humans. China has a history recently of putting business interests far ahead of human interests. Manufacturers in China have few restrictions on how they operate and whether or not they are permitted to pollute the air and water. Cancer rates have soared in many parts of China that have become industrialized. It has been noted by Western journalists that the smog is so thick in some Chinese cities in that you can stare at the sun without worry because it looks like a dim orange ball in the sky.

Another assumption that we can make based on what is known about toxicology is that it is not uncommon for two mildly toxic compounds to have a cumulative effect that is far more toxic than either compound alone. As such, it seems quite likely that other chemical contaminants originating in China, which have not yet been identified, are also present in Chinese food products. Melamine would almost certainly put a strain on the kidneys because it contains a great deal of nitrogen, and one of the major functions of the kidneys is to clear excess nitrogen from the body in the form of urea (present at high levels in the urine). If Chinese farmers and food product distributors have been putting other toxic compounds into their products for similar, nefarious reasons as they have been using melamine, then it seems quite possible that two or more mildly toxic compounds are having a synergistic effect in causing kidney damage, and eventually failure.

The New York Times and other sources have reported that melamine has also been found in livestock feed in the US, and in several cases in the livestock as well. This suggests that melamine and other contaminants have also entered the human food chain here in America, as well as abroad.

I suggest that the presence of melamine in food products be considered as a “marker” of contamination, rather than being the primary, toxic contaminant.

As China's industrial base grows exponentially without the benefit of government regulations for public safety, the deadly effects which are so clearly in play in that country will spill over to other countries that import Chinese food products. As China's burgeoning industries slowly poison the Chinese people, they are also slowly poisoning the rest of the world. I hope that Western governments crack down on Chinese food product imports until, in the future, Chinese government policies provide substantially more protection for consumers than is now the case.

Notes Added 5/2/07: Today, the Washington Post reported that 2.5 million chickens were fed tainted food and subsequently entered the human food supply. An additional 100,000 chickens in Indiana have been scheduled for destruction.

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John R. Moffett PhD is a research neuroscientist in the Washington, DC area. Dr. Moffett's main area of research focuses on the brain metabolite N-acetylaspartate, and an associated genetic disorder known as Canavan disease.

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