The Cot Death Cover-up?
Inspiration in Britain
Summer 1988. In the leafy suburban precinct of Lainston Close near the
ancient cathedral city of Winchester, a family wedding was being celebrated. The
bride was the daughter of unassuming British consulting scientist Barry
Richardson and his wife Janet. On the lawn was a large marquee where speeches
were made, toasts were drunk and merriment prevailed.
The Richardsons had hired the marquee from Mitchell Marquees. Peter Mitchell,
proprietor of the marquee company, is an ebullient entrepreneur living in
Winchester, where he has various business interests. In his early days- doing a
reverse Grand Tour- he visited New Zealand and for a while worked on the
construction of the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Now in his sixties, he specialises
in the manufacture and hiring out of marquees and other outdoor amenities. He's
good at it. So good, in fact, that he has even supplied equipment for the
Wimbledon Tennis Tournament and the Farnborough Air Display.
It has always seemed to me that Peter Mitchell was an unlikely person to
stumble upon the cause of cot death, but that is what he did. And it all came
Soon after the wedding Barry and Peter, both members of the Rotary Club in
Winchester, were sitting together at lunch. When Peter learned that Barry was a
consulting scientist specialising in preventing the degradation of materials, he
was immediately interested. He had a problem with his marquees and awnings. They
were made of heavy PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, and deterioration was
occurring: after a short period a fungal growth appeared, causing unsightly
staining. Peter asked Barry to investigate the problem and tell him how to
Barry's reply was that no investigation was needed: the staining was caused
by a common fungus which became established in the plastic, consuming the
plasticiser in the PVC as a food source.
(PVC is a rigid plastic, hard and brittle, and not widely used in this form.
The familiar flexible sheeting is rendered pliable by the introduction of
plasticisers, of which there are several types. The most common types used in
ordinary PVC sheeting are called 'external plasticisers'. These are low
volatility organic solvents which are mutually soluble in the PVC. As more of
the plasticiser is blended with the original PVC, the sheeting becomes more
tough and flexible).
Peter took Barry's answer back to his PVC supplier, who told him the problem
could be overcome by increasing the amount of biocide in the PVC, thus killing
the fungus. A biocide is a material which prevents the growth of
micro-organisms. Biocides used in PVC are frequently based upon the toxic
element arsenic and are added to plastics intended for use in the tropics. The
actual compound which the PVC supplier was using was OBPA (oxybisphenoxyarsine).
The supplier's suggestion was vetoed by Barry, who explained: 'The biocide
won't kill this fungus- instead, the fungus will consume the biocide as well as
the plasticiser. Since the biocide contains arsenic, the fungus will generate a
very poisonous gas which would be harmful to your staff working with the
The PVC supplier listened politely to Barry's warning but didn't accept it.
Not knowing who to believe- Barry or his PVC supplier- Peter contacted the
OBPA manufacturer in Austria, whose reply was even stronger: Barry was talking
nonsense and OBPA was perfectly safe. And then came the crucial remark: 'It's
even approved for use in babies' mattresses.'
Peter pondered on this reply and at about midnight that night woke suddenly
with the thought: if Barry is right and the supplier is wrong, could this be the
cause of cot death? As soon as it was dawn, he phoned Barry. 'Yes, it could be,'
said Barry, 'and I'll even name the fungus for you: it's probably Scopulariopsis
On this note started the research programme which finally elucidated the
answer to cot death, a problem which had confounded medical researchers
worldwide, consumed millions of research dollars, and caused the deaths of so
many infant children. The research destroyed the conventional wisdom that cot
death has many causes, gave the answer to every known factor about cot death
which epidemiologists had discovered, and also provided a cheap and immediate
means of eliminating it.
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