My heart goes out to the parents of the children in China who have discovered that the milk they have fed to their kids contains melamine. The gruesome aspect of this business is how widespread it is. Melamine isn’t all that toxic – it is about as dangerous as salt. But when it comes to toxicity it is all about doses. Something that is perfectly okay for a healthy adult can, and sadly in this case has been, lethal for an infant with a much smaller body mass and a less well developed set of enzymes.
But this story also tells us quite a bit about the way things work in China. Lets be clear. Adding melamine to milk is not a random bit of contamination. Melamine is a chemical that is extremely cost-effective if you want to fool the analytical techniques used to assess milk quality. This was a deliberate fraud carried out by people with a lot of chemical knowledge Melamine itself is not particularly cheap and it isn’t a basic chemical. To be used as for the purpose to which it was put it must have been made with that use in mind. The dosing must have been done to fall within the expected levels so as to not arouse attention. In other words, this was a systematic and very dangerous fraud carried out knowingly by some educated people with a considerable degree of collusion.
I have had misgivings about Chinese produced materials for some time have had bad experiences with some raw materials sourced from. I should add that I have had good experiences as well. But on the whole, I would not choose to use anything produced in China without taking care to make sure it was okay. This story about melamine just shows how sophisticated the Chinese can be in getting round quality control procedures.
A lot of manufacturers of personal care products work with Chinese suppliers. I don’t know exactly what proportion of the goods on our shelves come from China, but it is high and probably higher than you suppose. Big multinational companies will have quality control procedures in place and no doubt they take steps to avoid problems. Nonetheless, I have to say that my gut feeling is that given the choice I would not buy anything that I knew came from China at the moment. There are a couple of companies that I know only manufacture in the UK: Liz Earle and Artful Teasing (declaration of interest – I do some work for them). I think that the Body Shop probably does as well, though their recent takeover by L’Oreal may have changed that. I am sure that there are others as well and I would be glad to hear from them so I can include them on my list.
Postscript- for the other chemists who read this blog, protein is analysed by using the amine groups as a chromaphor. Melamine has three amine groups and a molecular weight of only 126, and is nice and water soluble too. This makes it a great choice to fool a protein assay. I can’t think of a more effective molecule for this purpose.
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