Saturday, August 20

China: Arsenic and Old Race

I've been reading your series on the outbreak of 'pig disease' in China. Your post [on August 19th] got me thinking more and more that the cause for the outbreak may not be as complicated as initially supposed.

I think your suggestion about manufacturing plants, as a possible source of a poisonous substances leading to the outbreak, is a reasonable guess. I did a Google search on the chief symptoms: hemolysis, fever, rapid death.

My specialty (general biochemistry) caused me to suspect compounds which might "uncouple" or "turn off" the mitochondria in cells (cyanide is one and so is dinitrophenol; the former is lethal and the latter can be absorbed through the skin). These compounds would produce high fever and rapid death but not necessarily hemolysis (hemorrhaging). Vomiting is nonspecific so I punted on that. However, cyanide leads to other characteristic symptoms.

Then, I found this link at Emedicine, which addresses poisoning symptoms related to arsenicals; specifically, arsine, which is a derivative of arsenic:

Arsine compounds seem to fit the bill of the major symptoms you noted. I am not expert in this area by any means; a toxicologist is much more qualified to comment and my information goes back many years to a time when I worked in metabolic biochemistry. But it would seem that most industrial accidents should not cause such rapid death unless the compound is incredibly toxic (as arsenic would be). This is what led me to think of compounds which interfere with, halt or inhibit metabolic respiration (rotenone is one such classic inhibitor and it causes very high fevers as heat is given off as a waste product as I seem to recall).

The EMedicine article indicates that arsine compounds have a dual use. They can be used in certain biowarfare compounds. They are also used in certain industrial processes, such as cleaning semiconductor chips. It would be interesting to learn about the proximity of China's chip processing factories to Sichuan, which has been the main locus of the pig disease outbreak.

While arsine poisoning could be a real possibility, all pools of heavy metals would be possibles. Again, some of these compounds could perhaps derive from dual sources: bioterror research or simple toxic industrial waste. I believe an industrial chemist, given the list of human symptoms (including the rapidity of death), could come up with a list of candidate compounds based on the industry in the region. I think it might be important to discover the level and type of industry in Sichuan and any other provinces that have reported the disease outbreak.

Also, I think it would worthwhile to contact a poison control center to find which industrial compounds produce the symptoms reported with the pig disease. The fact is, the explanation for the illness may be more straightforward than is generally thought. Someone in poison control could perhaps come forward and say, for example, "That sounds like X, or Y!"

Yet it was you who pointed out that China's government may be trying to divert attention from the real cause; perhaps the domestic unrest caused by cases of frank poisoning would be too much to brook?
[Signed] 'Doc,' Ph.D. biochemist in USA"

Dear Doc:
Thank you for your suggestions but I venture you'd agree they are premature without a database on anecdotal accounts of the symptoms. I've been told that poison control centers can be a goldmine of information but we don't yet have good questions to put to them.

And it's too early to focus on heavy metal compounds. It's not for nothing that China is known as Counterfeit, Inc. They do a lot of counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals.

It's setting ourselves up to chase red herring until we have an exhaustive list of reported symptoms along with reported incidences of death and recovery, estimated onset of illness, and so on.

Granted, it would be an incomplete list because China's authorities have repressed accurate data on the number of cases of the mystery disease. That's all the more reason to be very thorough about tracking down published accounts of the symptoms.

Until someone does the ground work of going through medical message boards, Boxun reports and press reports, it's not possible to come up with a good profile of the symptoms to present to a toxicologist or industrial chemist.

However, if someone were intent on throwing sand in Dr. Wong's gears, here would be a shot at it: get a detailed list of all the symptoms of Ebola virus infection, then ring up an industrial chemist and without mentioning Ebola ask, "Got any idea what chemical compound could do this to the human body?"

But even if an industrial chemist came up with an exact match, the most victory you could claim would be sticking it to Wong. That's because the reported pig disease symptoms are not necessarily those of Ebola (or plague), no matter what Wong said.

I harp on the symptom profile because there's no use going from silly to silly. People have been chasing a biomedical explanation for the outbreak and trying to top each other with speculations based on the most tenuous data. Let's not repeat the error by chasing a biochemical explanation with nothing but wisps of data as our steed.

First let's chase down exactly what people recounted about the symptoms they experienced or observed in other people and afflicted swine and chickens.

This said, your observations about the connection between poisoning from arsenic derivatives and the major pig disease symptoms that have been reported by some Chinese are suggestive. Suggestive enough to galvanize Pundita to take a peek on Google. From this, I hate to tell you but it doesn't take a manufacturing process to poison Chinese villagers with arsenic.

There are 200,000+ entries in Google (under "arsenic-China") relating to arsenic poisoning in China in some regions from groundwater laced with arsenic -- and vapors released by arsenic-rich, low-cost coal or "briquettes" used for cooking and heating.

By the way, China is not the only country that has the latter problem; arsenic poisoning from burning cheap coal is endemic in many rural regions of the world. The problem is exacerbated by poor ventilation and faulty stoves, which is the case for rural Chinese.

When it comes to manufacturing in China that deals with arsenic and derivatives, Google shows 103,000 entries for "arsenic manufacturing process China."

According to this 1996 US government report, the United States imports all arsenic metal and compounds and chiefly from China:

Money says the arsenic imports from China have increased since 1996 and that other developed nations import most of their arsenic compounds from China. The article notes, "In August, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed treatment standards for the land disposal of wastes from wood preserving operations..." which use arsenic compounds.

So I think you'd hardly know where to start, if you wanted to find foreign and domestic companies in China that are involved in some aspect of arsenic compound manufacture.

As to whether any of these are located in Sichuan, Pundita doesn't know. I spent all of four minutes reading through the China arsenic entries at Google. Even those minutes were terribly depressing. And these are just entries about arsenic poisoning; let's not talk about entries with regard to plants in China using benzine, mercury and other poisons.

The US got rid of many of those manufacturing processes; surely the same happened in West Europe. Now we know where many of those plants went: to China. It's NIMBY: Not in my back yard. So we moved the really nasty manufacturing processes to someone else's living room.

The Chinese have worked so very hard to pull themselves up. A tragedy they've turned their land into a toxic dump in the process. Double tragedy is the ultimate consequence of China's open door policy for foreign companies seeking relief from stiff regulatory laws at home. The government report I cited mentions:
Substitutes for arsenic compounds exist in most of its major uses, though arsenic compounds may be preferred because of lower cost and superior performance. The wood preservatives pentachlorophenol and creosote may be substituted for CCA when odor and paintability are not problems and where permitted by local regulations.
This situation points to what is probably one of the most horrific aspects of trade globalization. By turning themselves into an industrial plantation for wealthy nations, countries such as China help to discourage R&D of less toxic compounds.

It's the same with petroleum. The stuff is in practically everything, including a lot of makeup and hand creams. Think of petroleum jelly. There's no need for that. But because petroleum has been cheap and readily available for such a long time, this discouraged industries from developing substitutes.

Same with petroleum for fuel. We should have moved decades ago beyond petroleum fuel for cars. But the stuff has been cheaply available and its use has been heavily promoted by what are surely the most powerful lobbies. Yet whose fault is that? Let's all go look in the mirror before cursing OPEC and the oil and car companies.

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