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China Linked to Panama Cough Syrup Poisoning Deaths

Chinese manufacturers are facing harsh scrutiny after a series of health scares involving toxic exports to several nations. In Panama, officials are struggling to understand how a poisonous chemical made in China was wrongly mixed into a cough syrup formula, killing more than 100 people since last year. China has denied wrongdoing in the incident. VOA's Brian Wagner visited Panama City, where victims' families say the Asian manufacturing giant should bear part of the blame.

The label "Made in China" is starting to raise red flags for some importers around the world. This year, health concerns over Chinese exports have led to recalls of pet foods, toy trains and automobile tires in the United States and other nations.

In Panama, officials have confirmed the deaths of nearly 120 people who took tainted cough syrup last year, and they say more than 250 other deaths are being examined. Investigators say a local firm mixed the medicine, using a cheap, industrial solvent known as diethylene glycol, which the company says was incorrectly labeled as a safe and more expensive ingredient, called glycerin.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Nestor Sosa saw several of the patients suffering from kidney failure after taking the tainted syrup.

He said the mortality of patients in this case was quite high. More than half of the patients died, based on how much cough syrup they took and the medical care they received.

Dr. Sosa said he had heard of cases of poisoning by diethylene glycol in people who drank automobile antifreeze, which often contains the substance. But finding the poison in cough syrup was a surprise to Panamanian health officials and U.S. investigators who were asked to help find the cause of the deaths.

One of those affected was Carlos Umanzor, a Panama canal worker who died six weeks after first taking the cough syrup. His widow, Lediana said some of the blame for his death belongs to the Chinese maker of the diethylene glycol, for its alleged role in labeling the product.

She said there was a chain of events that led to the deaths, adding that it is hard to understand how the diethylene glycol could have been labeled something else, and no one inspected it.

China has denied any role in the deaths. It says the diethylene glycol was sold with the proper labels to a Spanish company, which later sent the chemical to Panama. Foreign Minister Qin Gang spoke recently about a series of health scares tied to Chinese products.

He says Chinese manufacturers are working tirelessly to supply the international market, and he said he hopes Chinese products will not make consumers cautious.

The Chinese statements have been met with skepticism by victims' families in Panama, such as attorney Ivette Landero.

She says China can deny the allegations, but Panamanian investigators have evidence proving otherwise, including the original containers of diethylene glycol.

Landero's mother has suffered kidney failure and other illnesses after taking the cough syrup, but she survived. Landero says her family and others hope to file charges in Panama to claim damages from the Chinese maker of the toxic compound.

It is unclear if Panama's government will seek to penalize the Chinese company, in part because the two nations have no diplomatic relations due to Panama's support for Taiwan.

Carlos Carrillo, an attorney for Panama's health minister, says publicity in the case already has damaged China's reputation.

He said the poisoning incident serves as a warning about other products from China or other countries, because there have been more recent examples of tainted products.

Earlier this year, officials in the United States, Panama and other nations recalled several shipments of Chinese-made toothpaste, after they were found to contain diethylene glycol. Dr. Sosa said the alert in Panama was prompted by a consumer who saw the substance listed on one of the toothpaste boxes.

He said Panamanian consumers had been educated about the dangers of the substance after the incident with the cough syrup. He said people in another country may have assumed diethylene glycol was a normal ingredient.

In recent years, diethylene glycol has been found in tainted medicines in several countries, and caused scores of deaths in Haiti and Bangladesh. Experts say health safeguards currently in place may not be enough to keep such toxic ingredients out of the drug supply and prevent another incident.