A Bitter Pill

A Houston inventor says alcohol-free medicines aren't alcohol-free at all, and could harm you

Chemists and toxicologists like Wayne Snodgrass and Andrew Barron say that statement ignores two very important variables: First, no one knows what constitutes a lethal dose, apparently because it's not entirely understood how the human body metabolizes propylene glycol; and second, right now, no one knows how much propylene glycol is in a product because it's not required to be listed on the label.

That second variable will likely be changed later this year, when the Food and Drug Modernization Act of 1997 goes into effect. Among its proposed statutes is a requirement that all inactive ingredients in OTC products be listed on the label. Interestingly, another new requirement seems to bolster Wilson's contention that there is, in fact, more than one alcohol.

According to Section 704 of the new law, drug manufacturers will have to list the proportion of each active ingredient, "including the quantity, kind and proportion of any alcohol...."

"The key word there is 'kind,' " Wilson says. If they put the word 'kind' in, it must mean ethanol isn't the only kind of alcohol."

But, to others, relying on the semantic nuances of a federal law few people will actually read shouldn't be necessary. Common sense and a little scientific evidence ought to be plenty.

"You've gotta wonder," says Andrew Barron of Rice University, "if you can't feed it to your cat, what's it doing to you?"

E-mail Brian Wallstin at brian_wallstin@houstonpress.com.

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