Chinese regulators announced a ban yesterday on the use of a toxic chemical in toothpaste, and they deserve credit. Sure, they’re still standing by their belief that diethylene glycol, a solvent used in antifreeze, is safe in small doses. But it won’t be showing up in toothpaste here anymore, at least not legally.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize the regulators in Hong Kong on this. A little story from late June explains why. As the debate over the use of the chemical in toothpaste was raging last month, Li Yuanping, a Chinese official responsible for the safety of imported and exported foods, attended a meeting on food safety in Hong Kong. While there he urged local authorities to lift a ban on mainland toothpaste that contains diethylene glycol. Hong Kong authorities had previously recalled Maxam with Flouride, Sanqi and Tianqi brand toothpastes after tests showed they had levels of the chemical ranging from 0.21% to 7.5%. Li said that levels up to 15.6% were considered safe by the mainland. But customs officials in Hong Kong didn’t budge.
The new mainland policy is a reflection of the commercial reality for toothpaste manufacturers in China. It’s harder than ever to sell a product with diethylene glycol overseas, so they’re killing production of it. Hong Kong’s stand probably didn’t have much influence on Beijing’s ban. But had Hong Kong caved, mainland officials would have won a very public show of support for leaving this chemical in toothpaste. But now, at least on paper, it’s out, which should put a little sparkle in everyone’s smile.