Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Bugged out.

NO-ONE could fail to be disgusted at news that 17,000 pills containing the remains of dead babies have been found smuggled out of China.

Dead foetuses are apparently sold by abortion clinics to people who chop them up, dry them out, grind them to dust and market them as 'traditional medicine' to improve stamina.

So universal is the repugnance at this story - which has been reported all over the world - it makes me wonder whether the Chinese wouldn't be equally appalled at the idea. And if so, can it be true?

The fact humans generally don't eat each other and usually find babies cute, rather than tasty, is just as true in China as the rest of the planet. 'They' are not hugely different to 'us'. And there have been plenty of reports of baby-eating in the Far East which later turn out to be untrue.

The story came about, and has been so widely reported, because of an official comment from the Korean Customs Service which says it has stopped people smuggling the 'health pills' over the Chinese border in the past few months. In a journalist's mind, an official comment equates with "legally safe to repeat", if not always with "100 per cent true".

What the customs officials didn't add, but I will, is that the two countries aren't very friendly and it's quite common for one side to whip up hatred against the other. A modern form of a blood libel claiming the other side kills and eats babies would probably tick all their xenophobic boxes.

Who knows? Perhaps dark and gruesome things happen in remote parts of the world where people put their unquestioning trust in the local medicine man rather than science. Silly foreigners! But then again, are we any better in questioning science?

So I went and had a look in my bathroom cabinet. Here it is, apologies for the amount of fake tan but I keep being given it free:

It's packed with stuff which because of our laws must have the ingredients printed on the side. This is how I know none of it contains dead babies.

So what does it contain? It's impossible to tell. There's words like ammonium polyacryloydimethyl taurate, and things known only by initials like BHT and EDTA. Words the average person cannot hope to understand. Science, you might think. It's all science, so it's fine.

But check what some of these things actually are and you get a shock. My L'Oreal make-up remover contains CPS or cyclopentasiloxane, which is derived from rock and sand and carries a 'moderate' risk of forming tumours and disrupting my endocrine system.

My Dove hair conditioner has stearamidopropyl dimethylamine, which is basically from rapeseed oil. Why don't they just say so? It has something called DMDM hydantoin which I probably didn't want to know is also known as formaldehyde, and tocopherol which is vitamin E derived from wheat, soy or corn.

My Pond's moisturiser has cera alba, which they could just call beeswax if they wanted, and allantoin which is perfectly natural but might not impress customers if they mentioned it came from cow urine. And it's got two different food colourings in it, for some reason. The tube of Aquafresh toothpaste has a kind of red Irish moss in its ingredients, along with a chemical called PEG which is used in Hewlett-Packard printer ink and laxatives.

Even my Johnson's baby lotion - for BABIES - contains a chemical called PEG-80 sorbitan laurate which is considered a skin irritant. It has also been found to cause diarrhoea in rats, spleen problems in hamsters, and developmental abnormalities in mice.

All those products are safe to be sold, the ingredients have been approved, and aren't going to cause you any harm unless you take a bath in the stuff or are unlucky enough to be a rat having it injected into you. But it just goes to show you can call anything a scientific name and we don't bother to wonder what it really is. It could be dead babies, and we just have to trust our medicine men won't do that to us.

But they do all kinds of things we probably wouldn't like if we paid more attention to it. Anything with 'guanine' in it is made from bird droppings. Expensive perfumes containing 'ambergris' are not telling you it's a kind of bile found in a sperm whale's stomach. Baby foreskins and the placentas of baby cows, pigs and sheep are commonly used in anti-wrinkle creams.

'Laureth sulfate' is an engine degreaser and generally found in anything that bubbles, like shampoo. Waste cooking oil - the icky stuff takeaways use for a year before they 'recycle' it - is used as a surfactant to regenerate damaged skin. Chicken bone marrow is a source of glucosamine, which is sold as a health supplement.

And yes, there's a whole cosmetics range made with human placenta.

So are we really that different from the unquestioning, uneducated villagers in remote China who supposedly take 'stamina' pills made from dead babies? At least what they're up to may not even be true. What we're up to definitely is.

And I've just realised that the healthiest, most natural thing in my bathroom cabinet is the little pot of Chinese traditional medicine I use for headaches - Tiger Balm, containing no actual tigers.

Maybe they're not the inhuman ones after all.

There's probably a bug in it.


Bill Kruse said...

"In a journalist's mind, an official comment equates with "legally safe to repeat", if not always with "100 per cent true"."
Well, now I understand why DWP press releases are written in so misleading a manner, that's if they're not outright untrue. They can safely rely on you lot not checking anything then.

Anonymous said...

1st! Tiger balm smells lush!

Unknown said...

The references to the scientific names of compounds are a little misleading, even a quick google search shows that some of them are untrue. It is true that Guanine was first synthesised from bird droppings (or guano in spanish) in the 1800's, but has long since been made from other things. Indeed Guanine is one of the basic parts of DNA, so is present in every cell of our body. Same with Allantoin, it was originally made from cows urine but nowadays is made in much larger quantities in industrial processes involving no urine at all.

And anything has a risk of causing cancer or health problems, the main issue is dosage, sure if you drink a litre or two of the stuff it is dangerous, but having it in your hair for all of 5 minutes isn't going to do any harm.

I realise this wasn't the point of the article, and I agree that we take for granted that all the things in our bottles and creams are safe without ever checking, but I do think taking a little more time to check could have helped it be a little more factually accurate!

And I agree the dried baby stuff sounds unbelievable, until you think of all the furore surrounding stem cells taken from foetuses, and indeed the use of human placentas in other cosmetics, and you can wonder how far removed from the truth it actually is.

pirate said...

Headaches my arse you mean hangover.

John Hartnup said...

As I already tweeted to Foxy this morning, there's a Hong Kong horror film on the subject of aborted foetuses being consumed for their health giving properties -- "Dumplings". It's quite good if overlong. It demonstrates that the idea exists in Chinese culture, but it also demonstrates that Chinese film audiences share our revulsion.

I'll need a bit more than the say-so of the Korean customs service before I believe this has been industrialised to the extent that pills are manufactured.

BekBlayton said...

A brilliant column, well done!

Lilly3 said...

Love Tiger Balm and it works!

notjarvis said...

In the interest of Accuracy I'd like to point out this quite sober article analysing what facts we actually know about this headline 1000s of dead babies story...

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