Despite society’s frequently professed concern with the sanctity of and need for the preservation of human life this attitude is not always evident when reality sets in. The melamine poisoning of pets by tainted foodstuffs has created a remarkable whirlwind of world attention which has resulted in a swiftly successful scientific investigatory response to find the culprits and make sure that this does not happen again.
Unfortunately, poisoned humans have not been as lucky as their pets. The press has brought to our attention the fact that a syrupy poison (diethylene glycol, the prime ingredient in antifreeze) has been substituted for more expensive and safe ingredient glycerol in oral medicines, such as cough syrup throughout the world for over a decade.
The effect of the oral administration of diethylene glycol produces kidney failure, paralysis, and in most cases death (please note the similarity of symptoms with pet deaths due to melamine). Massive diethylene glycol poisonings have now been documented in Haiti, Bangladesh, Argentina, Nigeria, India, Panama, and China.
In underdeveloped countries most people who die don’t come to a medical facility or have toxicological autopsy studies. While some may be tempted to take some solace in being in a more advanced society, they shouldn’t. Please put on your seatbelts at this point in time.
You will no doubt be surprised to learn that the same poison, diethylene glycol, has been injected into the spine of unsuspecting Americans and their European cousins since the 1940s as a ingredient of oil myelograms and continues to be injected today as an ingredient of steroid suspensions frequently being used to treat back pain.
When ethylene glycols get into the subarachnoid space they produce a chemical meningitis. which typically results in adhesive arachnoiditis. When also clinically significant the most common symptoms are constant and agonizing pain which is remarkably disabling. Many patients with clinically significant adhesive arachnoiditis have taken their own lives as the only means of escaping their agony because this condition is only rarely a direct cause of death.
The common use of ethylene glycols as a ingredient of steroid suspensions being blindly injected into the spine is a real, present, and serious public heath problem in the United States and Europe today. Remarkably there is has been no hue and cry evident. The sufferers are not infrequently told that the problem is “in their heads” when a high resolution MRI could provide the specific diagnosis.
Where are the medical and scientific professionals needed to investigate these tragedies? They are not in evidence. The only recourse a patient has today is in the medical-legal (if the statute of limitations hasn’t run out) arena. The problem with this venue for society is that the settlements are not publicly propagated and the rest of the unsuspecting potential victims remain essentially uninformed. There just may be a slim chance, at this point in time, that the suffering of our pets from the melamine disaster might just possibly shift the spotlight a bit to the also not-wonderful-world of the toxicity pf ethylene glycols being placed in our salum sanctorum, the subarachnoid space.
Charles V. Burton, M.D., F.A.C.S.