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Suspicious toothpaste is ordered off shelves

Antifreeze product may be in tubes from China

Inspectors from Boston and 11 other Massachusetts cities and towns have confiscated about 160 tubes of toothpaste that may contain a chemical used in antifreeze, part of a widening national campaign to eliminate tainted products made abroad.

State and federal authorities said they have no proof that anyone has been poisoned by toothpaste contaminated with diethylene glycol, a substance that Chinese manufacturers have used as a cheap substitute for the sweetener glycerin. Still, state authorities said, they ordered local health agencies to scour store shelves for potentially tainted toothpaste, knowing that long-term exposure to diethylene glycol may cause kidney and liver problems.

"Suffice to say, this chemical is not allowed in toothpaste in the United States, and we obviously feel it's unhealthy," said Tom Lyons , a Department of Pub lic Health spokesman.

Deaths in Panama, Haiti, and China have been blamed on diethylene glycol found in pharmaceutical products such as cough syrups. The risk posed by tainted toothpaste is believed to be low, FDA representatives have said, because the amount of diethylene glycol in toothpaste would be small, and people generally spit toothpaste out, rather than swallowing it.

In Massachusetts, investigators from local agencies found suspect toothpaste in Amherst, Arlington, Boston, Cambridge, Dedham, Lawrence, Lowell, Malden, Somerville, Sturbridge, Wellesley, and West Springfield. Because authorities are relying on 351 cities and towns to gather the information, there was no immediate sense of how many stores have been surveyed, Lyons said.

State and federal food and health investigators urged consumers to avoid products falling into these categories:

Those labeled "made in China." The US Food and Drug Administration has identified brands made in China, including Cooldent, Dr. Cool, Everfresh, Superdent, and Oral Bright.

Packages that appear to be Colgate, but are actually counterfeits from South Africa. Colgate officials have said that their company does not import toothpaste from South Africa and that tubes labeled as coming from there are fakes. The warning from health authorities does not apply to Colgate toothpaste made in the United States.

Packages labeled in a language other than English.

State authorities said yesterday that they have no plans to test the confiscated products, in part because federal reviews have already shown that some toothpaste produced in China contains antifreeze thickener and thus poses health risks. "And in the case of counterfeit Colgate," Lyons said, "I suppose we could test, but it wouldn't make any difference because it's a counterfeit product, and we would want that off the shelf."

Inspectors from Lowell's Department of Health found suspect toothpaste at four stores, said health director Frank Singleton.

"They were the dollar-type stores, not the Stop & Shops of the world," Singleton said.

Health inspectors, he said, faced little resistance when they explained that the toothpaste needed to be removed.

"Nobody's arguing with us," Singleton said. "My inspectors asked to take the product not only off the shelf but out of the store, and nobody had a problem with that."

In alerts issued in recent weeks to local health boards, the state Department of Public Health told investigators who spot suspect toothpaste to confiscate it or insist that merchants dispose of it in their presence.

Merchants should be instructed "not to send this product back to the distributors," Lyons said, "because we don't want to see this product showing up somewhere else."

To the untrained eye, the counterfeit products can look identical to the packaging of the real toothpaste. Such was the case with containers branded "Colgate" that sat on the shelves of Sammy Patel's Somerville shop, Minute Market.

But a close look showed the product was made in South Africa.

The phony products contain notations saying they were made in South Africa and include multiple misspellings, according to Colgate- Palmolive Co.

One product found locally was a 5-ounce tube of Colgate marked "maximum cavity protection." The company does not sell that size tube in the United States and does not use the word maximum on its packaging. Once inspectors alerted Patel that he had been sold fake goods, he said, the toothpaste was removed "right away."

"It's disgusting," Patel said in an interview. "They should really be careful when they're importing this sort of stuff in the US."

US Senator Edward M. Kennedy expressed similar sentiments yesterday, urging that the FDA be given more power to assure safety of food, drugs, and other products that are imported.

"Congress has a responsibility to see that the FDA has the authority and resources it needs to safeguard the health of American families," the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement. "Today's report is a call to action for a stronger, more effective FDA."

The concerns about the safety of toothpaste are the latest example of tainted products imported to the United States for consumption by humans and animals. This year, thousands of dogs and cats became ill or died after they ate food from China filled with an industrial chemical FDA investigators said they suspected was added to make the food appear more nutritional and, thus, command a higher price.

"It most definitely raises a red flag about things that we import and who's actually screening them," said Dr. Nancy Norman, medical director of the Boston Public Health Commission.

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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