Panama Releases Report on ’06 Poisoning
Panamanian investigators have concluded that at least 174 people were poisoned, 115 of them fatally, by counterfeit cold medicine linked to an unlicensed Chinese chemical plant.
The report was the government’s first effort to offer a precise toll of those killed and disabled in the mass poisoning in 2006. But the head of the agency that prepared the report, Dr. José Vicente Pachar, said the number of victims was bound to be much higher because many in remote areas of the country were unlikely to report their cases to the government.
“The figures we have are the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Pachar, director of the Institute of Legal Medicine of Panama’s Public Ministry, said in an interview. “We will never know the full extent.”
As if to underscore that point, a government agency that dispenses aid to victims found a higher number of poisoning victims: 184 so far, including 123 deaths. More than 700 claims have been filed on behalf of possible poisoning victims.
Dr. Pachar’s agency issued its report two weeks ago after investigating victims’ claims and exhuming more than 50 bodies. Previously, the government had estimated the death toll at 100.
The mass poisoning caused a political upheaval in Panama, partly because the government itself distributed the counterfeit medicine and because of questions over how vigorously the authorities sought to identify and help the victims. One protest last summer turned violent when the police began clubbing families of victims who were trying to deliver a list of complaints to Panama’s president.
The poisonings also brought new scrutiny to Chinese exports after The New York Times reported last May that a supposedly safe drug ingredient in the cold medicine actually contained diethylene glycol, an industrial solvent used in some antifreeze. What is more, it was made by a Chinese chemical company that did not have a license to sell drug ingredients.
China’s regulators initially said they had no legal grounds to take action against the manufacturer, but under rising international pressure the government closed the plant last year.
The families of some Panamanian victims have accused their government of trying to suppress the number of those harmed.
Gabriel Pascual, the leader of a group that represents victims and their families, criticized the government for ruling some cases inconclusive for poisoning without specifying the reasons.
Mr. Pascual cited seven examples of people he said had medical records certifying that they had ingested the poison, yet who government investigators concluded were unaffected or had inconclusive evidence. In 128 cases, the government said it lacked enough information to reach a definitive conclusion.
Mr. Pascual also criticized the slow pace of the exhumations.
The authorities said that they had exhumed 52 bodies, and that 27 had tested positive for diethylene glycol. Asked why more bodies had not been exhumed, Dr. Pachar said the tests were expensive, adding: “The institute’s budget is about $3 million for the whole year. The government spends almost $4 million on Carnival.”
Dr. Pachar — whose report is being used by prosecutors in criminal cases they have filed against 16 Panamanians involved in the handling and distribution of the toxic syrup — said it was impossible to identify all the possible victims. “People in the countryside who live far from the modern sectors of Panama tend to think of death as a matter of God’s will,” he said. “They tend not to report deaths that we might find suspicious.”
He said his investigation was 95 percent complete.
Elida de González, the chief social worker for the Victims’ Support Office, said her agency had confirmed a number of victims different from that of Dr. Pachar’s agency because the two investigated independently. Ms. González speculated that her agency’s count was higher because people were more willing to report their cases to an agency offering aid.
Mr. Pascual, the representative of the victims’ group, said he was injured in a demonstration on July 19, 2007, when the police used billy clubs to stop the group from presenting a petition listing its complaints to President Martín Torrijos. Mr. Pascual said one person was hospitalized and seven were treated and released.
Afterward, the government apologized. “It’s really sad and lamentable what happened,” President Torrijos said.
The poisonings occurred after a Chinese factory sold 46 barrels of toxic syrup to a Beijing broker, owned by China’s government. The mislabeled syrup then went through brokers in Barcelona and Panama before being sold to a Panamanian health service. It unwittingly mixed the diethylene glycol into 260,000 bottles of cold medicine.
No one in China has been prosecuted for selling the counterfeit syrup.
The same poison, diethylene glycol, was later detected in Chinese-made toothpaste sold in Panama, setting off a worldwide hunt for tainted toothpaste.
R. M. Koster contributed reporting from Panama City.