Monday, May 7, 2007

In a world of connnections, a mounting cost

We live in an age when even greater interconnectedness is inevitable. The cover story of last week's Economist covers this very topic from the standpoint of wireless technology.

There seems no province of our lives exempt from its influence. The consequence are very different however. While world and economies and financial markets are impacted in a matter of hours or days what has come to light in the disturbing developments this week is just how tragic the effects are when the vulnerabilities of interconnectedness take weeks and months to come to light.

The FDA recently banned imports of Chinese made wheat gluten after it was linked to pet deaths in the US.

This problem is not new. Fifteen years ago, investigators found poison in seven brands of fever medication, which only came to light after a pediatrician smuggled samples of tainted syrup out of the country. Countless children died before the authorities acted.
Toxic contamination of syrup also caused mass poisonings in Haiti, Argentina, Nigeria and twice in India.

The syrupy poison, diethylene glycol, is an indispensable part of the modern world, an industrial solvent and prime ingredient in some antifreeze. The deaths, if not intentional, are often no accident. Over the years, the poison has been loaded into all varieties of medicine — cough syrup, fever medication, injectable drugs — a result of counterfeiters who profit by substituting the sweet-tasting solvent for a safe, more expensive syrup, usually glycerin, commonly used in drugs, food, toothpaste and other products

Panama is the most recent victim where 260,000 bottles of cold medicine were mixed with diethylene glycol causing 100 confirmed deaths and another suspected 265.

The connectedness came through a distribution pipeline stretching half-way around the world. Forty-six barrels of the toxic syrup went from the Panamanian port of Col√≥n, back through trading companies in Barcelona, Spain, and Beijing, to its beginning near the Yangtze Delta in a place local people call “chemical country.” Panama’s death toll leads directly to Chinese companies that made and exported the poison as 99.5 percent pure glycerin.

Today OFD speaks out in praise of slowness. It is not to advocate reversing or diminishing the inevitable trend towards even greater interconnectedness. It is to responsibly recognize that the perils of negligence or profiteering from international trade dramatically increases our very real and tragic vulnerability.

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