The Imaginary Crimes of Margit Hamosh | Revisionist History podcast with Malcolm Gladwell E8/S3
The Imaginary Crimes of Margit Hamosh
Episode 8| Season 3| Revisionist History
Length: 36 mins | Released: July 5, 2018
MG: In early summer of 1999, there was a strange incident in Belgium.
MR: Products had been taken back from the market when it happened, but, obviously, it was already a bit too late.
MG: It began at a secondary school in a little town called Bornem, just outside Antwerp. A group of students got sickÔøΩ abdominal distress, headaches, nausea, trembling, dizziness. Dozens of kids in the first wave all ended up in the hospital.
BN: And the only commonality was that they had been eating together but each had eaten their own sandwiches, so there was no possibility of a food-borne problem.
MG: That's Benoit Nemery, he's a medical toxicologist at the University of Louisville. He was part of the group that investigated the outbreak among the students.
BN: The only thing that they had in common is that they had drunk Coca-Cola from bottles from a crate and, allegedly, there was a strange odor in the Coke. And then the school teachers went in the different classrooms asking is anybody feeling unwell and drank Coca-Cola, which, of course, made sense at the time, but that led a few more children to report sick, to be taken to hospital.
MG: The story went national. The Evening News was a montage of ambulances and worried parents. The next day, four more schools reported outbreaks.
BN: I mean, it was really a state of panic.
MG: Every single Coca-Cola product in Belgium was pulled from the shelves and destroyed. 30 million cans and bottles; the largest recall in Coca-Cola history. The company was in crisis. The stock price plummeted. I was transfixed by the Belgian Coke crisis, not because I had any special interest in Coca-Cola or Belgium but because the whole affair reminded me of another panic, something I'd lived through years before that left me baffled and frustrated.
MG: My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listening to Revisionist History, my podcast about things forgotten and misunderstood. The next two episodes are about a panic that swept the United States a quarter-century ago, an outbreak of insanity. I was in the middle of it, covered it as a young reporter for The Washington Post. But it took the Belgian Coke crisis, a few years later, for me to understand why it happened because you know what poisoned all those Belgians? Nothing.
MG: The best explanation Coca-Cola could come up with was that some of the carbon dioxide at their local bottling plant had been contaminated with sulfur compounds, enough to cause a slight odor, but trace amounts, orders of magnitude below what is necessary to cause illness.
BN: No major toxins detected, nothing that would suggest true poisoning. And so epidemiologically, it made no sense that there was poisoning by a single same agent.
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