Margin of Error

I shared a picture on Facebook this morning and reactions to it reminded me of the My Pikin teething mixture saga of late 2008 and the children who lost their lives because proper checks weren’t done. It just hit me that those children would have been in secondary school by now


Any third year pharmacy student would be tired of hearing the saying or a variation of the saying – anybody can make a mistake that would end up costing a life, but when a pharmacist makes mistakes, several lives are affected. For me and my classmates entering into our fourth year at pharmacy school in early 2009, hearing that was no longer cause for an eye roll but a sobering reminder of the responsibilities that awaited us in the future.


Polyethylene glycol (PEG) is a solvent used in the manufacture of certain pharmaceutical preparations and it was one of the components of My PIkin, a teething mixture made by Barewa Pharmaceuticals, Lagos. However, one of the common adulterants of Polyethylene glycol is Diethylene glycol (DEG) and the two compounds share the similar physical properties of being – practically colourless, odourless, and a faint, sweetish taste. Glycerin, another major component of pharmaceutical preparations is very similar in appearance with the two compounds listed above and DEG is also used as an adulterant in glycerin preparations.Screenshot_20191002-194319_Chrome.jpg


Diethylene glycol is a cheap industrial solvent which is toxic when ingested by humans, it causes kidney failure and eventual death. The toxicity of DEG was first discovered in 1937, in the now famous Elixir Sulfanilamide Tragedy of 1937 where a pharmacist who wasn’t aware of the then recent studies showing the toxicity of DEG in humans and mammals used DEG for his formulation. He simply dissolved raspberry flavour in the solvent and added it to his sulfanilamide preparation and offered it for sale.


The offshoot of this tragedy that took many lives was the passing of the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic act of 1938 which is the backbone of the US Food and Drug Administration – USFDA or FDA and which ensured that vigorous testing, animal studies and clinical trials must be passed satisfactorily before new products are certified safe for human use. NAFDAC and many other food and drug regulatory agencies around the world closely mirror this organisation.


Sadly, the marked difference in price between these similar looking products means that unscrupulous people easily bulk up these pharmaceutical additives with DEG to increase profits. In 1985, several wineries in Austria added DEG to their wines to improve appearance and taste. This was discovered in Germany where these wines had been exported for sale, during routine tests for food products imported for sale in Germany, it was discovered that these wines were tainted with DEG. This led to the destruction of these wines and a near collapse of the Austrian wine industry – but countless lives were saved.


The test for the presence and extent of contamination of DEG in PEG and glycerin involve the use of Gas Chromatography (GC), High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) and High Performance Thin Layer Chromatography (HPTLC). None of these tests are cheap by any means.


Yesterday, I wrote about abandoning a piece I was writing on the defunding of education in Nigeria. I wrote about my experience in the university, using outdated apparatus for practical classes and how any near-modern equipment was worshipped and kept out of the reach of grubby undergraduates. When I think about how they policed us when we used the analytical balance which costs less than $50, I feel like going back in time and slapping some people.


In my third year, we took a course about instrumentation in Pharmaceutical Chemistry where we studied HPLC, HPTLC and GC. Prof Eboka gave us reams of notes in his classes, I barely managed to pass the course and didn’t understand anything. Some years later, I was watching a YouTube video TLC and many things became very clear. If I had only seen these instruments at work for an hour, I would have made an A in that course.


Back to My Pikin, the test (such tests for known adulterants and contaminants are known as LIMIT tests) for DEG wasn’t done and the rest is tragic history. The company was shut down, the pharmacists are in jail and the owner of the company died after a stroke in 2012. All because somebody decided to let things slide and not do proper tests for whatever reason.


This morning, I found a post on the online page of the Daily Times. The post was an apology for a malicious post they made about a young political analyst and commentator who recently passed on. This apology of less than fifty words was signed by The Editor. However, all the variants of the word apology on the post were misspelled. I made a screenshot and brought it to Facebook.facebook_1570042117292.jpg


While I mulled on this silly mistake, beyond shocked that such outrageous errors were left on a post signed by The Editor who is supposed to be the final gatekeeper to keep out silly typos and horrible writing from the pages of his hallowed medium.


A comment made by a friend on the post struck my heart. It reads ‘I remember teachers encouraging us those days to be reading newspapers as it would help us very well. I doubt if we can tell that to our kids these days.”


I grew up in the days when quality journalism was on its sick bed – it’s been dead and buried now. You read columns in the papers and longed to write like these gods, you wanted to bend words like them, to be half as smart as them. These men and women – mostly men to be honest, churned out well researched, exciting pieces that delighted the senses and gladdened the heart.

May the soul of Ikpehare Izedomi Aig-Imoukhuede who was leader of this pack, continue to rest in perfect peace.


I wonder if the Nigerian journalists of today are aware of the enormous responsibility they wield as moulders of public opinion, shapers of thought and life givers. While they crisscross town in search of brown envelopes, do they remember they owe us excellence and truth?


I read a post on medium this morning by a Facebook friend, he wrote about Pa Ikhide – literary critic and social commentator. In the piece, Michael echoes Pa Ikhide’s sentiments on the failure of writers/journalists to speak truth to power while they hobnob with oppressors who fund literary festivals and sponsor lucrative fellowships. You can read the said piece Pa Ikhide and his fight…


I like that Michael was honest in stating how attractive the ‘filthy lucre’ is and how he is unsure if he wouldn’t be seduced. I would not turn down an interesting and plum offer to work with the current FG which I think is directionless. Or with a certain brilliant governor in the north whom I think is a megalomaniac despot. Not this woman.


Principles and standards and long held convictions will be easily buried when I think about my current account balance and my many responsibilities to my parents and grandmother. If in the future, I have sanctimonious children who try to criticise me for taking up such an appointment in the past, I would remind them that their lives are only possible because I found a better standard of life. After all, I didn’t have children while I was a broke writer/pharmacist.


Beyond the temptation of money, what do we do about the spirit of ‘Anyhowness’ in present day journalism? Despite the preponderance of grammar correction and spellcheck technology, we still find typos and inaccuracies competing strongly with facts in our newspapers and magazines. Isn’t it sad that the best and ‘crispest’ Nigerian writing is found on Facebook and personal blogs and medium pages?


There’s an Igbo expression my father uses often – “you decide if a snail is worth eating from the quality of the entrails.”

Perhaps we expect too much from our journalists and writers with platforms. How can we expect that he or she who cannot take care to be sure that apologise and apologies are well spelt, how can we ask such a person to be our conscience?


If the foundation is destroyed, what can the righteous do?






  1. I can’t blame journalists who don’t speak truth to power, these are dangerous times, a lot of writers /activists are missing or behind bars, if you’ve paid attention to my fb posts, you’d notice that I don’t talk about this government like I used to.
    The likes if Reno, Farooq Kperogi etc are able to say all they are saying because the live abroad even Jaafar is not in this country and he dare not step his foot here.
    When we go abroad, we will talk from there.


  2. Amazing.

    You are a gift, you and your pen and your beautiful mind that delivers beauties such as this one.

    Indeed, what can the righteous do, when the foundation is broken.

    At least we can keep writing.

    Keep writing.


  3. Sigh.

    Dire times. Our system is so corrupt that any attempt to criticize the government is seen as something else and you are clapped in jail. Perhaps when we go abroad, we will talk from there. For now, mum’s the word, and I don’t mean my mother.


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