Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tainted Tylenol Causing Flashbacks

If you, like most of us, have either been riveted to news of the disaster in Haiti or avoiding the news altogether, you may have missed the fact that Johnson & Johnson has issued a recall of an enormous number of its products, including Tylenol, Motrin, Rolaids and Benadryl.  It appears that a chemical called TBA, which is used to treat wooden pallets that the medicines are shipped in.  TBA is not all that dangerous, but it has been causing a moldy smell to the packaging and sometimes the medication itself, and in some cases has caused nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.  According to the FDA, Johnson & Johnson knew it had a problem with this as early as September 2008 and didn't notify them until September 2009.  An initial, much smaller recall was issued in November, and was expanded yesterday at the urging and, frankly, scolding of the FDA.

This is a big story but not a particularly scary incident in and of itself.  No one's life is in danger and it never was, at least from this particular problem.  It is more interesting to consider whether or not Johnson & Johnson acted quickly enough and whether, had this been a life-threatening situation, they would have acted faster.  That is probably the real news value in this story.

At the same time, I suspect that these procedural issues are not what is catching people's eye and capturing their attention as they scan the headlines.  For those of us who were around in 1982, tainted Tylenol has a whole different, more sinister meaning.  We remember the days before medications had tamper resistant seals, when capsules (not "caplets") were still sold over the counter and seven people died after someone laced Tylenol capsules with cyanide.  The killer has never been caught.

If the headlines yesterday and today read, "Aspirin Recall" or "Tainted Tums" we might be interested, but we wouldn't be sucked right into the story.  Headlines like "Major Tylenol Recall Sparks Fear Among Consumers," aside from being unnecessarily sensationalistic, bring us back to those days 27 years ago when we were eying everything we ate, drank or ingested with suspicion.  We know this case is totally unrelated and totally different, but the notion of Tylenol not being safe is a trigger, however small, for us.  Most of us will look through our cabinets to see if we have anything that's being recalled (a full list is here).  A lot of us will also eye the tamper-resistant seals on the medicine we're opening just a little more carefully today than we would have last week.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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