Leroy Hubley, 72, married for 48 years and a father of three, has lived through tragedy no one should endure once, and he did so twice in the span of a month. Bonnie Hubley, his wife, had polycystic kidney disease, in which cysts grow in the kidneys, often becoming so large that the kidneys fail and have to be replaced. All of the Hubley children inherited the genetic disease. In 1995, Bonnie had a kidney transplant, and in October of last year, her body began to reject the replacement kidney, requiring her to start dialysis.
A month earlier and half a world away, a team of quality-control specialists from Baxter International, the big multinational health-care company (2007 sales: $11.26 billion) based in Deerfield, Ill., arrived in Zhejiang province, China, about two hours by car from Shanghai, to inspect a facility owned by one of its key suppliers. CZ-SPL is a joint venture controlled by Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC (SPL), a Waunakee, Wis., company started in 1976 by Oscar Meyer, of hot-dog fame. (The connection: pigs naturally produce proteins used in pharmaceuticals.) CZ-SPL makes a key ingredient, what in the pharmaceutical business is called an active pharmaceutical ingredient, or API, for a drug called heparin, a blood thinner that is widely used by kidney-dialysis and postsurgical patients to prevent blood clots. The team found little unusual and gave the facility a clean bill of health.
On Dec. 17, after two months of dialysis using heparin produced by Baxter, Bonnie Hubley was rushed into intensive care. She had developed diarrhea, vomiting and eventually severe pain in her chest and abdomen. She deteriorated rapidly and by Dec. 19 was unconscious and on a breathing tube. Stunned doctors at the Toledo, Ohio, hospital told Leroy there was no hope. "She was gone," he says. So with "Christmas carols playing in the background," he says, "we said our goodbyes, and my wife of 48 years drifted away."
Three weeks later, his 47-year-old son Randy, also a dialysis patient and a heparin user, suddenly had symptoms similar to those that had killed his mother. Shockingly, he died on Jan. 15, as his wife Colleen, a dialysis nurse (they had met at the clinic years earlier), frantically and futilely tried to revive him. An uncomprehending family buried Randy Hubley next to his mother in Toledo.
Now add tainted baby milk to a seemingly unending stream of foods, drugs, pet foods and toys that over the past two years have killed or injured thousands worldwide. These products all have three words in common: MADE IN CHINA. A large state-owned Chinese company, Sanlu Group, based in Hebei province in central China, as well as several smaller companies, apparently diluted milk products with an additive called melamine. Industrial-grade melamine is a masking agent used to hide the dilution of protein, in this case in milk products, including an infant formula widely popular in China. Nearly 53,000 small children in China have developed kidney stones, four have died, and product recalls have spread to 11 countries, including the U.S. The recall list includes seven instant-coffee and milk-tea products made in Taiwan using Chinese milk. (Melamine also tainted the pet food that harmed so many animals in the U.S. last year.)