Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Understanding the toxic Chinese baby formula incident from a scientific view

While the Sanlu (三鹿) baby formula incident is all the rage in the news, Taiwanese news reports are very superficial in that they only report the reaction of horror of the people and government to the incidents. After reading the in-depth reports in the New Yorks Times, I think I'd like to share some scientific facts of the incident here with friends, and try to give a better understanding for people who had only read superficial reports.

So what surprised me is that the toxic contaminant in the baby formula is melamine, which is the same contaminant as in the toxic Chinese pet food incident sometime ago that happened here in the US. Interestingly, after the pet food incident, a lot of vet papers showed up exploring the effects of melamine on animals, as this is a contaminant that previously wasn't expected to show up in foods. It's said to be used mainly in plastic manufacturing and fertilizers. And as in the reference paper I found, adding melamine can fool conventional tests of food protein levels, boosting it's nutrient content read levels.

Thus, it seems that someone has added melamine as a way to boost up fake nutrition levels, making the food products seem "more nutritious", while it forms crystals in the kidney of pets, babies, or who/whatever is the victim. Interestingly, according to the paper, melamine has to form crystals with cyanuric acid, and cyanuric acid was also present in the pet food incident; while they could not find major crystal forming in their experimental animals administered with melamine or cyanuric acid alone (which they used as a negative control). However, I could not find reports that state cyanuric acid also present in the baby formulas. FDA even had a report that melamine is non-toxic to humans unless in extremely high levels, although babies may have a way lower susceptable threshold and it is possible that the formulas were highly contaminated. Are the kidney precipitate crystals melamine-cyanuric acid complexes? Or some other complex with melamine? This is yet to be clear until farther scientific reports come up.

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