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Toxic trade mission: US pitched China on toxic medical products

Monday, March 28, 2011

By Alex Formuzis with Sonya Lunder

In 2007, two members of Congress traveling on a tax-funded junket scolded a Chinese government official over tainted Chinese-made products, including lead-tainted children's toys, being exported to the United States. (If this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, it's not.)

Two years later, then-Representative Mark Kirk (R-Il.) and Representative Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) were back, but this time on a different mission. They lobbied Chinese officials to look the other way and allow the sale of medical devices made by a U.S. company that contain a toxic plastics-softening chemical (a type of pthalate) the use of which is restricted in China (but not in the U.S.).

The legislative pitchmen were representing the interests of Illinois-based Baxter International - a medical equipment manufacturer that racked up more than $12 billion in revenues in 2010. The company, coincidentally, is one of Kirk's largest benefactors, contributing more than $98,000 to his campaign coffers over the last 10 years, according to the Reuters story. Note: We were not able to establish if Baxter or any of its employees contributed money to Mr. Larsen's campaigns, and a review of its website found no connection to his District.

Not exactly Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In fact, the movie scene that comes to mind is from The Graduate.

Enter Wikileaks Both incidents were reported in State Department cables obtained by Reuters from Wikileaks. The cables revealed that in 2009 Kirk, now a Republican senator from Illinois, and Rep. Larsen pressured Chinese officials to allow Baxter intravenous blood bags made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to be sold to Chinese hospitals.

Those products contain a toxic chemical called DEHP, a type of phthalate chemical commonly added to soften PVC plastic. European countries just announced a ban on DEHP, and China has apparently restricted these ingredients for 20 years. (Somewhat ironically, China recently also got out ahead of the U.S. on keeping BPA out of children's products.)

Meanwhile, back in American hospitals... American medical patients, meanwhile, continue to be exposed to DEHP in medical tubing, despite evidence that it can result in harmful exposures. In 2003 the National Toxicology Program said it had "serious concerns" about the impact of DEHP on newborn boys receiving intensive medical treatments.

That's because DEHP blocks male sex hormones. Exposure during pregnancy and childhood can cause birth defects, undescended testes and other permanent changes to the male reproductive system. A series of studies performed at Massachusetts General Hospital find that adult men with higher phthalate exposures have more sperm damage and hormonal changes that would impair their fertility.

Who knew that wikileaks would be so awkward for the Congressmen who purport to be purveyors of public health? Apparently consumer products containing toxic chemicals sit just fine with these two men -- as long they're turning profits for a U.S. company and sold in China.


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