Consumer Safety: Antifreeze in Toothpaste

We’re ever thankful when our students come to school with freshly brushed teeth, but could there be a circumstance under which you would suggest your students not use toothpaste? In May of 2007, BBC News reported that the Chinese government was investigating charges that toothpaste containing diethylene glycol, also known as antifreeze, had been exported to other countries.

In the following months the New York Times, Fox News, and others identified the tainted brands of toothpaste and locations where they were sold. Some brands were found to contain the compound even though it wasn’t listed as an ingredient. Unfortunately for China, the tainted toothpaste adds to a growing list of product-safety breaches, including a similar incident with cough syrup in 2006 and, more recently, the use of lead-based paints in children’s toys.

In the United States, the Consumer Product Safety Commission provides information and issues safety alerts on consumer products. In the wake of the incidents involving lead-based paint on toys, the Commission reached an agreement with China, requiring imported toys and some other products to meet U.S. safety standards. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration got involved with the tainted toothpaste issue, developing a web page devoted to the problem.

To what extent should individuals rely solely on government agencies to look out for their personal safety? How much scientific literacy do consumers need to be able to read labels and make informed decisions regarding their own health and safety? These questions are addressed in an October 1, 2007, article in the New York Times, The Everyman Who Exposed Tainted Toothpaste. This article tells the story of how one person, Eduardo Arias, brought the issue of tainted toothpaste to the attention of the world.

Arias is a Panamanian government employee responsible for reviewing environmental reports, but that’s not the reason he recognized the compound in the list of toothpaste ingredients as toxic. Rather, he was made aware of diethylene glycol’s toxic effects when, in 2006, almost 100 people died after consuming tainted cough syrup from China, another story reported by the New York Times. Bringing the danger of the tainted toothpaste to the attention of the proper authorities required Arias to cut through the government bureaucracy at three levels and cost him a considerable amount of personal time. His story exemplifies the human side of safety in society and personalizes an issue that could easily be perceived as something the government is solely responsible for. His story should inspire others to do the right thing, despite the probable inconvenience doing so brings.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

What’s so dangerous about diethylene glycol? Why would it be used in toothpaste? How can average citizens be proactive in maintaining their own and others’ safety when it comes to consumer products? These are questions for inquiry that align with several of the National Science Education Standards in the areas of Science as Inquiry, Physical Science, and Science in Personal and Social Perspectives.

The intention here is not to scare middle school students, but to show them there are mechanisms in place to maintain our safety, and these mechanisms require active, informed, scientifically literate citizens. We all have a responsibility to stay informed. Teachers have a responsibility to assist students in learning where and how to access the needed information as well as how to evaluate it for its authenticity, validity, and usefulness. This approach provides opportunities to integrate skills and knowledge in language arts, social studies, and science.

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This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published October 3, 2007 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 4/23/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.