Tainted Toothpaste and Super-Empowered Individuals

Stephen DeAngelis

October 3, 2007

The information age has empowered individuals to a degree never before possible. Perhaps the first person who recognized this was Jody Williams, whose efforts to ban landmines eventually won her and her organization the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman labeled such people “super-empowered individuals.” The latest story of a person transformed into a super-empowered individual comes from Panama [“The Everyman Who Exposed Tainted Toothpaste,” by Walt Bogdanich, New York Times, 1 October 2007].

“Eduardo Arias hardly fits the profile of someone capable of humbling one of the world’s most formidable economic powers. A 51-year-old Kuna Indian, Mr. Arias grew up on a reservation paddling dugout canoes near his home on one of the San Blas islands off Panama’s Caribbean coast. He now lives in a small apartment above a food stand in Panama, the nation’s capital, also known as Panama City. But one Saturday morning in May, Eduardo Arias did something that would reverberate across six continents. He read the label on a 59-cent tube of toothpaste. On it were two words that had been overlooked by government inspectors and health authorities in dozens of countries: diethylene glycol, the same sweet-tasting, poisonous ingredient in antifreeze that had been mixed into cold syrup here, killing or disabling at least 138 Panamanians last year.”

Arias discovered what Jody Williams had discovered earlier, that dedicated and determined people can make a remarkable difference in the age of information, even if changing the world is not their goal. Williams called this People Power: massively distributed collaboration in trans-national political action, initially via fax and eventually via email — Williams’ own explanation,

“Imagine trying to get hundreds of organizations – each one independent and working on many, many issues – to feel that each is a critical element of the development of a new movement. I wanted each to feel that what they had to say about campaign planning, thinking, programs, actions was important. So, instead of sending letters, I’d send everyone faxes. People got in the habit of faxing back. This served two purposes – people would really have to think about what they were committing to doing before writing it down, and we have a permanent, written record of almost everything in the development of the campaign from day one.”

Since Williams began her landmine campaign, connectivity has improved considerably. Arias, unlike Williams, had no intention of founding an organization or starting a movement. He simply notified Panamanian officials of his concerns and let health officials run with ball he passed them.

“Mr. Arias reported his discovery, setting off a worldwide hunt for tainted toothpaste that turned out to be manufactured in China. Health alerts have now been issued in 34 countries, from Vietnam to Kenya, from Tonga in the Pacific to Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean. Canada found 24 contaminated brands and New Zealand found 16. Japan had 20 million tubes. Officials in the United States unwittingly gave the toothpaste to prisoners, the mentally disabled and troubled youths. Hospitals gave it to the sick, while high-end hotels gave it to the wealthy. People around the world had been putting an ingredient of antifreeze in their mouths, and until Panama blew the whistle, no one seemed to know it.”

If Arias didn’t expect to start a global furor, he also didn’t expect any publicity from his actions.

“Lost in this swirl of activity was the identity of the person who started it all — Mr. Arias. Until The New York Times tracked him down with the help of the Panama City mayor’s office, his name had not been known, even to some people working on the case. ‘We haven’t been able to find him,’ said Julio César Laffaurie, the Panamanian prosecutor pursuing the case of the contaminated toothpaste. In looking back over events of the past year, Dr. Jorge Motta, director of the Gorgas Memorial Institute, a prominent research center in Panama City, said he was grateful that some good had come from the national trauma brought on by the toxic cough syrup.”

Motta noted that Arias’ action created a “butterfly effect,” where “A little butterfly in Panama beat her wings and created a storm in China.”  That is the essence of the “power” of a super-empowered individual — the cascading of action from one person to another and from one organization to another. In Arias’ case, it was not easy to get that cascade flowing.

“Mr. Arias, who lives alone and does not own a car, went to buy blank CDs on May 5 at Vendela, a discount store where he had heard prices were so low that street vendors bought supplies there. Stepping into the store, a large display of toothpaste caught his eye. ‘Without touching the tube, the letters were big enough for me to read: diethylene glycol,’ Mr. Arias said. A year ago, those words would have meant nothing to him. ‘Nobody had ever heard of this stuff,’ Mr. Arias said. But a steady drumbeat of news about poison cough syrup had engraved the words in his mind. ‘It was inconceivable to me that a known toxic substance that killed all these people could be openly on sale and that people would go on about their business calmly, selling and buying this stuff,’ said Mr. Arias, who has a midlevel government job reviewing environmental reports. Mr. Arias thought about alerting the store clerk but figured nothing would come of it. Instead, he bought a tube with the plan of turning it over to the health authorities. It was not easy. Since government offices were closed on the weekend, he said, he used a vacation day on Monday to walk the tube to the nearest Health Ministry office. But that office refused to accept it, directing him to a second health center. Mr. Arias walked there and found himself in a crowded office. … The clerk there directed him to another section of the building where he spoke to another official. … The official told him he needed to take the toothpaste to a third health center, this one much farther away. ‘I said, wait, wait, do I have to walk all the way over there?’ he recalled. ‘Can’t I give it to you and make the complaint here?’ At this point, Mr. Arias said he was given a form to fill out. He left wondering what if anything would come of his complaint.”

The butterfly, however, had left its cocoon and flapped it wings. Arias was never contacted by the health ministry, but he learned that his complaint had been taken seriously.

“Three days later … the nation’s top health official, Dr. Camilo Alleyne, announced that toothpaste containing diethylene glycol had been found by an unidentified shopper in Panama City. The news set off alarms. In 2006 the government had mistakenly mixed mislabeled diethylene glycol into 260,000 bottles of cold medicine, and Panama was still coping with its aftermath. The day before Dr. Alleyne’s announcement, a front-page newspaper article here reported the finding by The Times that the diethylene glycol in the cold medicine had come from a Chinese company not certified to sell pharmaceutical ingredients, and that it had been sold under a false label.”

One of the more puzzling, but fortunate, twists in this tale is that the manufacturer actually listed diethylene glycol as an ingredient on the label. According to the article, counterfeiters often use it as a cheap substitute for its more expensive chemical cousin, glycerin, a common ingredient in medicine, food and household products and the toothpaste manufacturer could have just as easily listed glycerin on the label with no one being the wiser.

“The label did not list its origin. … Reynaldo Lee, director of the national food protection agency … suspected [the toothpaste came from] China, and shipping records proved him right. The toothpaste had entered Panama through the Colón Free Trade Zone on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. One of the world’s biggest free zones, with 30,000 workers and 2,500 businesses, it is a place where billions of dollars in goods are unloaded, stored and either sold or reshipped free of tariffs. From there, 5,000 to 6,000 tubes slipped into the Panamanian market, without proper certification, mixed in with animal products, investigators said. A much larger number of tubes were reshipped from the free zone to other Latin American countries. But it was not until the United States disclosed June 1 that tainted tubes had penetrated its borders that the hunt intensified, a task that grew more difficult when investigators discovered that some contaminated toothpaste did not list diethylene glycol on the label. Even two well-known brands, Colgate and Sensodyne, got caught up in the sweep when counterfeiters were found to be selling toothpaste with antifreeze under their names. Some fake Colgate tubes also contained potentially harmful bacteria, according to a statement from Health Canada, the national health agency.”

When the storm finally reached China, officials there had no choice but to act.

“As reports from around the world mounted, Chinese officials showed they were not immune to the criticism. When the makers of Sensodyne tracked counterfeit toothpaste through the Dubai Free Trade Zone to a factory in Shejiang Province in China, regulators there shut it down, a spokesman for Sensodyne said. The government also closed the chemical company that made the poison used in the toxic Panamanian cough syrup. And in July, China ordered its manufacturers to stop using diethylene glycol in toothpaste.”

Almost by accident, Eduardo Arias had become a super-empowered individual. The power was as fleeting as will be his fame, but the lesson learned from his story is important. Connectivity empowers people and that empowerment can make history.  More importantly, not every individual needs to achieve “super empowerment” in order to enjoy the benefits of connectivity.