Poisoned babies: the tragic Morhange talc case

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In 1972, a serious cosmetic scandal shocked France. Dozens of infant encephalitis have been observed in Yonne and the Ardennes. After an investigation by Inserm (National Institute of Health and Medical Research) the competent authorities finally discovered the origin of the disease, whose symptoms include “burns, fever, tremors, paraplegia and coma”, explains Les Echoes. Hexachlorophene, a very powerful and dangerous bactericide at high doses, is present in talc from the firm Morhange.

However, this conclusion was not reached until August 17, 1972, four months after the first poisonings. The government reacts immediately: the product is withdrawn from circulation. Too late. He will be responsible for the death of 36 children and 224 contaminations.

What happened ? In all, four years of investigations will be necessary to find an explanation. In reality, it is a handling and packaging error. 38 kilos of this bactericide are mixed with 600 kilos of talc. This error is due to several flaws in the practices of the manufacturers. The Morhange firm did not have the equipment or the personnel to control the products. As well as the talc packaging company, Setico, indicated Le Monde, in an article dated July 20, 1977.

It will take seven more years to get a conclusion to this scandal. Givaudan’s lawyer, Robert Badinter, declared: “It is not a company that is being judged but a man, I feel the duty to defend this man”. However, on February 11, 1980, the court of Pontoise also condemns the companies Morhange, Setico and Givaudan which market hexachlorophene and their CEO. The victims will receive a proposal of 8 million francs in compensation from them. Many will agree.

The penalties will range from one to twenty months in prison. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal of Versailles in 1981 issued a judgment reducing the sentences to less than twelve months for the accused.

Such a judgment is obviously very controversial and turns out to be vehemently contested by the families of the deceased children: “I am not a revolutionary, but there is enough to take the pitchforks. Our thirty-six kids died for nothing. The silence would have been more worthy than this scandal which ends with another scandal”, explains the grandfather of a victim, in the columns of Le Monde.

Amnesty will finally be declared for those charged in 1981: the President of the Republic, François Mitterrand, after consultation with the Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter, will make the decision.

This case led the Minister of Health under the Chirac government, Simone Veil, in 1975, founded the legislation concerning cosmetics. It is no longer conceivable that a product could harm human health. From law, it will be transformed in 2009 into European regulations, according to the media The Conversation.