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Questions Arise About Timing Of Alert Over Poison Capsules

March 5, 1991

SEATTLE (AP) _ Questions arose Monday over why the public wasn’t warned when the first case of tampering with Sudafed 12 Hour decongestant capsules was suspected a month ago.

A man and a woman died after taking capsules that authorities said may have been tainted with cyanide. Another woman was recovering. All three cases were in the Tacoma-Olympia area.

The first case - the non-fatal one - was reported to local police and eventually the FBI in early February.

But the first public warnings weren’t issued regionally until Saturday. Manufacturer Burroughs Wellcome Co. of Research Triangle Park, N.C., on Sunday voluntarily ordered a nationwide recall.

″We want to know why these alerts were not out sooner,″ Judy Arnold, coroner in Thurston County, where the first case was handled, said Monday.

Meanwhile, a suspect capsule found Sunday by a Tacoma woman was sent to an FBI laboratory in Washington, D.C., for analysis, and thousands of containers of the medicine were being examined at Food and Drug Administration laboratories in Seattle.

FBI agent Dick Thurston said the contents of the single capsule appeared to have been tampered with. Authorities gave no possible motive for the tampering.

On Monday, a Tacoma couple who bought a packet of Sudafed in mid-February, used two capsules and gave four more to a neighbor to repay for borrowed medicine retrieved the borrowed capsules and noticed one that appeared to have been tampered with, said FBI agent William Gore. The capsule also was being examined.

The five Sudafed packages came from different stores, officials said. Despite the nationwide recall, Thurston said the case didn’t appear to go beyond the Tacoma-Olympia area.

FDA spokeswoman Susan Hutchcroft said Sudafed 12 Hour capsules were still on some shelves. ″I don’t know how stores have missed the news, but some apparently have,″ she said Monday.

The first case occurred Feb. 2 when 28-year-old Jennifer Meling of Tumwater went into a coma. She is recovering.

Her doctor, L. Hian Pouw, said he warned Thurston County authorities two days later that he suspected cyanide poisoning, and that he believed the poison was in a tainted Sudafed capsule.

Meling’s husband, Joe Meling, said he, too, questioned why capsules were not pulled off the shelves earlier.

Tumwater Police Detective Jeff Oehlerich said authorities first considered the case one of attempted murder. But no signs of tampering with the other capsules in the container were evident at the Meling household, he said.

He said the Drug Emporium store in Olympia, where the capsules were purchased, emptied its shelves of Sudafed 12 Hour, and boxes were sent to the manufacturer for examination.

″They apparently found five of 83 boxes with broken seals, but that was the only discrepancy,″ he said, adding that such damage could happen in shipping.

Sudafed packaging has three tamper-resistant features - a blue gelatin band around the capsule; the aluminum and plastic blister pack; and the carton, which has tape on both ends.

Pouw said he treated Ms. Meling Feb. 2 at Black Hills Community Hospital in Olympia.

″I was fairly convinced she was not going to make it,″ he said. ″All night long the battle went on. ... When she woke up, it was quite a relief.″

He said he contacted local authorities Feb. 4.

″I said I was sure that Sudafed was most likely involved, and that it was cyanide,″ he said.

Pouw said he called back Feb. 5 to once again tell of his suspicions. ″After that, I felt I couldn’t really do anything more than that,″ he said.

He said lab results Feb. 5 showed the poison was cyanide.

Oehlerich said during that week he called in the FBI, the state Pharmacy Board, the Thurston County prosecutor and the manufacturer to discuss the case.

″We brainstormed and everybody agreed it did not appear to be a case of product tampering at that time,″ he said.

Joe Meling said that although officials found no solid proof of tampering at first, ″The family’s position was always: We don’t want this to happen to anybody else.″

Jeff Nesbit an FDA spokesman in Washington, D.C., said the agency was informed of the investigation Feb. 15, and began its own probe.

Tampering became suspected Friday, when authorities learned that 40-year- old Kathleen Daneker of Tacoma had Sudafed and cyanide in her body when she died Feb. 11. Relatives said she had remarried three days earlier.

David Predmore, a supervisor at the state toxicology lab at Harborview Medical Center, told a Seattle television station, KOMO-TV, that tests that usually take two days took more than two weeks in Daneker’s case. He said he could not explain the delay.

Nesbit said officials found Saturday that numbers on blister packs containing medication used by Daneker did not match.

″At that point, it really became quite clear that it was a tampering incident,″ he said.

On Sunday, authorities learned that Stanley McWhorter, 44, of Lacey, also near Olympia, died Feb. 18 of cyanide poisoning after taking Sudafed capsules. His wife alerted officials after the first word of Daneker’s death was made public through the media.

McWhorter was cremated and his vital organs donated before it was learned he had been poisoned. Authorities said blood and tissue samples were taken from his body before the cremation.

Five people received organs from McWhorter. One of the recipients died, but of causes unrelated to cyanide.

Burroughs Wellcome officials said they believe any tampering occurred after the products left the Greenville, N.C., plant where they were packaged.

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