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Editor's Page

May 19, 2008
Volume 86, Number 20
p. 3


Life And Death

This week's issue contains a number of important, unique-to-C&EN stories.

The cover story, "Sourcing from China" by Hong Kong Bureau Head Jean-François Tremblay, addresses an issue thrown into sharp relief by the recent uproar over contaminated heparin (see page 15).

The question facing Western drug manufacturers who buy Chinese pharmaceutical chemicals, Tremblay writes, is not whether alternatives to buying from China exist. They don't, especially for compounds produced by fermentation.

"The challenge is to implement the best methods for sourcing high-quality and reliable materials from that country," ??Tremblay points out.

Last week's issue of C&EN carried three stories on heparin contaminated with oversulfated chondroitin sulfate and pet food contaminated with melamine (C&EN, May 12, pages 37, 38, and 41). C&EN Associate Editor Jyllian Kemsley wrote: "Although the investigations into the sources of contamination are not yet complete, each case might have involved someone deliberately replacing an ingredient with a less expensive material. And not just any cheap alternative, but one known or designed to evade standard analytical tests."

Kemsley was being diplomatic. What is now clear is that in both cases someone in China knowingly poisoned people or pets to make a buck.

That said, there are many, many reputable Chinese fine and custom chemicals manufacturers who are as horrified by these cases as their Western counterparts and customers. Tremblay talked to numerous people involved in sourcing pharmaceutical ingredients from China and reports on best practices for managing such relationships.

The other story I want to draw your attention to is the second one in the Government & Policy Department, "Chemical Killing" by C&EN News Editor William Schulz (see page 36). Schulz probes the continuing controversy surrounding lethal injection as a means of capital punishment.

Despite the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of lethal injections, Schulz writes, "problems with the lethal three-chemical injection—sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chlorate—that is used in nearly every state with a death penalty will continue to be the focus of lawyers representing condemned inmates, judges who hear death penalty challenges, death penalty abolitionists, and other activists."

Real disagreement exists among experts on whether the lethal injection protocol is effective in rendering an inmate unconscious for the whole of the procedure. The protocol was developed in the 1970s by an Oklahoma medical examiner. There is a dearth of toxicological studies on the protocol. The drugs are usually administered by corrections department personnel who don't always have training in setting intravenous lines or mixing and delivering the drugs.

Nevertheless, "if the protocol is done as written, the inmate will not suffer," Mark Dershwitz, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told Schulz.

The death penalty itself is deeply controversial, of course. People of goodwill disagree passionately on the appropriateness of state-sanctioned killing, regardless of the heinousness of the crime a person has been convicted of. One's general political outlook is not always an accurate predictor of one's view of the death penalty. As regular readers of this page are surely aware, I am politically liberal, yet for most of my life I believed strongly in the death penalty as an appropriate expression of society's revulsion toward certain crimes.

No longer, though. As one death-row inmate after another is exonerated through, primarily, DNA analysis of crime-scene evidence, it has become clear that the criminal justice system in the U.S. is often inept at best and openly corrupt at worst. There is no question that innocent men and women have been executed in this country and continue to be executed, and that is simply not acceptable in my mind in a civilized society.

Science should not be involved in lending a patina of technological sophistication to a savage practice that is too often unjustly administered.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum, Editor-in-chief

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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