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Epidemiol Rev. 2001;23(2):231-47.

Toxic oil syndrome: the perspective after 20 years.

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Centro de Investigación sobre el Síndrome del Aceite Tóxico, Instituto de Salud Carlos III, Madrid, Spain.


Toxic oil syndrome burst upon the scene in Spain in May of 1981, draining the resources of a newly evolving political and social medicine system. The vehicle of the causative toxic agent was identified as an illicit oil that had been diverted from industrial use and refined in order to remove the aniline denaturant, and that was sold in unlabeled 5-liter containers by itinerant salesmen. Over 20,000 people were ultimately affected, and over 1,200 deaths from all causes have been recorded in the affected cohort. The epidemiologic investigation of toxic oil syndrome involved all facets of investigative and analytical work; from visits to factories and interviewing workers, to sophisticated chemical and statistical analytical techniques. This investigation serves as a further illustration that data and information of all types, and from a wide range of fields, need to be systematically collected and evaluated in order to best resolve an epidemiologic mystery. Astute clinical observation of the patients, however, led to the hypothesis that toxic oil syndrome was a result of a toxic exposure. In this and other epidemics of unknown etiology, clinical observation and the intense scrutiny of patients' histories, signs, and symptoms by treating clinicians have often led to hypotheses that could be tested epidemiologically. When there are medical unknowns, the role of the astute clinician continues to be crucial. The toxic oil syndrome epidemic is an example of how even a developed country can be affected by a massive epidemic of environmental origin if failures occur in the systems that control and regulate the food supply or other consumer products. However, such failures could occur anywhere that large commercial networks operate on the regulatory edge, and if these business lack an in depth knowledge of the consequences of alterations in manufacturing conditions. Such was the case with eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome as well, when apparently minor alterations in manufacturing conditions of L-tryptophan led to an increase in impurities in the product that were later associated with the illness. These risks are even greater in countries with few or inconsistent control systems, making the food and drug supply potential portals of entry for serious health hazards, as is further exemplified by the tragic episode of pediatric renal failure in Haiti associated with a legitimate consumer product, paracetamol elixir, that had been manufactured using a fraudulently supplied toxic ingredient, diethylene glycol (81). The potential toxicants in the adulterated rapeseed oil were present in extremely small amounts. If fatty acid anilides or related compounds are indeed the etiologic agents in toxic oil syndrome, then these compounds must be extremely toxic at the parts per million concentrations at which they were found. Further, the roles of causative agents in the development of disorders such as scleroderma, eosinophilic fasciitis, eosinophilic perimyositis, and other similar diseases are unknown, but scientists can speculate that some sort of low level environmental agent may play a role if such extremely small quantities of contaminants are indeed capable of causing disease. Although the exact identity of the etiologic agent in toxic oil syndrome remains unknown, work on toxic oil syndrome continues. Follow-up clinical studies and long-term mortality studies are under way. Investigation of the mechanisms involved in toxic oil syndrome continues. The identification of suspect chemical compounds, their characterization, and effects will hopefully one day contribute to the prevention of other similar diseases.

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