In recent weeks, ProPublica has published a major—and scathing—investigative series on the dangers of Tylenol’s main active ingredient, acetaminophen. Two years in the making, this series shows yet again the essential role of investigative journalism in providing public information that can literally save lives.
On the chance that the impact of the revelations has already been overtaken by other news, here again is the gist of the stories. Tylenol’s marketing has long emphasized its safety. Among the more memorable of its advertisements was that Tylenol was the pain reliever “hospitals use most” and packages asserted that the pills provided “safe, fast pain relief.” It turns out that these claims were dangerously misleading, and were known to be so by both the pharmaceutical manufacturer and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. To expand the reach of its findings to millions of radio listeners, ProPublica, brought in public radio's This American Life as a collaborator which incisively summarized ProPublica’s evidence of the dangers of acetaminophen. “During the last decade,” the first ProPublica piece begins, “more than 1,500 Americans died after taking too much of a drug renowned for its safety.” Moreover, the series and broadcast showed that the FDA has known for decades about the scale of the problem, but has failed to fully implement a succession of recommendations and warnings.
GUEST: Where can I buy subway tokens? CONCIERGE: The subway now uses a MetroCard, which you can buy at machines right in the station. GUEST: But where do we get the tokens? CONCIERGE: There are no tokens anymore. It’s now a swipe card system. GUEST: I don’t want a swipe card. I want tokens. CONCIERGE: Like, as a souvenir or gift or something? GUEST: What? No. To take the subway. CONCIERGE: The subway no longer uses tokens. You can use a MetroCard. GUEST: (shakes head) How many times do I have to tell you?! Tokens. To. Kens. Not MetroCard. Tokens.Where can I get TOKENS?!
(We look at each other.)
CONCIERGE: Right in the subway station. GUEST: THANK you.
How does Tylenol work? The truth is, we don’t know…
Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol™, is one of the most popular pain relievers in the world, selling more than 27 billion doses in 2009 alone. It can reduce fevers, eliminate aches and pains and relieve cough and cold symptoms. But how does it work? The truth is, no one knows exactly. This week, Reactions examines the theories about the popular pill.
“Pain might actually decrease empathy as well. So, there are other factors that need to be taken into account,” said Dominik Mischkowski, co-author of the study and current post doctorate fellow at the National Institutes of Health. He added the sample size is small and researchers are continuing to study the effect.
In the first round of the study, 80 college students read eight different scenarios. Half of the group consumed 1,000 mg of acetaminophen. The group that took the pain medication rated the scenarios as less severe than those that did not take the medication. A second experiment surveyed 114 college students and showed similar results.
Acetaminophen is the most common drug ingredient in the United States, found in more than 600 medicines, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. About 23% of U.S. adults use a medication that contains acetaminophen weekly.
Use of acetaminophen during pregnancy linked to ADHD in children
The supposedly innocuous acetaminophen, thought to be fine for use in pregnancy, may not be so fine for children. A long-term study by UCLA, in collaboration with the University of Aarhus in Denmark, has raised concerns about the use of acetaminophen during pregnancy. In a report in the current online edition of JAMA Pediatrics, researchers from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health show that taking acetaminophen during pregnancy is associated with a higher risk in children of attention-deficity/hyperactivity disorder and hyperkinetic disorder.
Zeyan Liew, Beate Ritz, Cristina Rebordosa, Pei-Chen Lee, Jørn Olsen. Acetaminophen Use During Pregnancy, Behavioral Problems, and Hyperkinetic Disorders. JAMA Pediatrics, 2014; DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.4914
The number of times I’ve seen my life flash before my eyes since becoming a parent is legion. Not my life as it has been so far, but my life as it would be if something happened to Momo. This time was especially bad: it was a ‘childproof’ lid and it just popped off, easy as you please, and I was about to get into the shower.
“There but for the grace of God we go,” is something I find myself saying a lot these days, despite living in a secular/Buddhist household. It keeps me mindful that I am one moment away from tragedy at all times, and only providence – and vigilance – keeps us safe.