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UPDATED: April 27, 2012 NO. 18 MAY 3, 2012
Unsafe Capsules
Medicine capsules containing heavy metals are the new frontline in China's uphill battle to ensure its food and drug safety
By Li Li

CONTAMINATED PILLS: Toxic drug capsules from a factory in Zhejiang Province that have been confiscated by the police (JU HUANZONG)

CRIME SCENE: Processed leather scraps are soaked in chemicals for softening in a factory involved in the toxic capsule scandal (WANG MIN)

On April 19, the SFDA announced analysis results for 42 batches of medication, finding that 23 of the batches contained excessive amounts of chromium, including several produced by the nine companies named in the CCTV report.

Manufacturers have been ordered to recall batches of contaminated medication and have them destroyed under supervision.

On April 20, the Ministry of Health ordered all medical facilities to sort through their inventories, remove and seal any of the medications listed by the SFDA as being possibly contaminated. Hospitals must refrain from purchasing or using the listed medications until the SFDA finishes examining them, a ministry statement said.

Inspection teams from several departments, including the police, health authorities and supervision agencies, have been sent to Zhejiang, Hebei and Jiangxi provinces to supervise the investigation of the case, the SFDA said on April 21.

The following day, the Ministry of Public Security said on April 22 that it had confiscated 77 million capsules made from toxic chromium-contained industrial gelatin. The police had also arrested nine suspects, detained 54 and sealed 80 industrial gelatin and capsule manufacturing lines.

Online responses

After the scandal broke, a 60-year-old woman in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, was reported by a local newspaper to have burned her esophagus after removing the coating of three cold medicine capsules and swallowing the medicinal powder directly. This piece of news has inspired a legion of netizens to brainstorm on "innovative" homemade food coatings for drugs.

Many netizens expressed their anger and frustration on the Internet. Weibo.com, a popular Twitter-like micro-blogging service in China, was flooded with comments, condemning lax supervision and low safety standards in China's pharmaceutical industry.

Some micro-bloggers condemned the loss of credibility and conscience of pharmaceutical companies, with one questioning, "How can we expect to be cured when the medicines coming to our rescue are poisonous themselves?"

Many Internet viewers called on supervisory authorities to establish a well-functioning mechanism to improve food and drug safety.

Sun Zhongshi, a researcher with the National Rational Drug Use Monitoring System under the Ministry of Health, was quoted by the Xinhua News Agency as saying that current regulations require drug authorities to only check the quality of active ingredients of drugs before they enter the market.

"The relatively lax quality check of non-active pharmaceutical products like medicine capsules has become a loophole used by profiteers," Sun said.

Hackers have also done their bit to join the condemnation. The Tonghua Golden-Horse Pharmaceutical Industry Co. Ltd. in northeastern Jilin Province, whose products were found to contain excess chromium, had its website hacked on April 16 and visitors to the site was greeted with a message condemning the company's misconduct.

"How can you make capsules from the broken shoes I threw away? Every hacker in China should join the attack against these criminal companies," the hackers said in the message.

Email us at: lili@bjreview.com

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