The Tylenol Murders of 1982
September 29, 2014 1:08 PM   Subscribe

The perpetrators of the crime have never been found, and that's due in part to the ease in which they were able to kill seven random people. All that was involved was taking a bottle off the shelf, opening it, inserting a number of cyanide laced capsules, then screwing the cap back on and putting it back on the shelf for the next person who came along to purchase it. In the wake of those seven deaths, an unprecedented recall was undertaken, a groundbreaking PR campaign was launched, and measures were taken that would forever change the way we consume medication.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (74 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
 


I remember how much this terrorized me as a kid. All of a sudden, it felt like nothing was safe anymore.
posted by jbickers at 1:13 PM on September 29, 2014 [19 favorites]


PR campaign or no, I am absolutely stunned that you can still buy a thing called Tylenol today. If something like that were to happen now, I don't even think they'd try keeping the name.

That was also my childhood wake-up call that nothing can be trusted ever.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:18 PM on September 29, 2014 [15 favorites]


I was a youngster at the time but this is burned in my memory. I hope the families will someday get justice.
posted by SpecialSpaghettiBowl at 1:20 PM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


I remember hearing about it as a kid, and it scared me. What I didn't find out until recently was that Mary Kellerman lived in my town. If I had known that then, I would have been afraid to touch anything in the medicine cabinet. Although to be honest, I was seven, so the whole medicine cabinet was essentially off limits anyways.
posted by Badgermann at 1:22 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


I am absolutely stunned that you can still buy a thing called Tylenol today

I'm stunned that you can still buy it over the counter, given its ability to cause permanent liver damage and death in larger doses.

Pharmaceuticals gonna pharmaceut, I guess
posted by leotrotsky at 1:26 PM on September 29, 2014 [45 favorites]


Superb find in that article, Ian A.T. Much thanks.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 1:27 PM on September 29, 2014


After all this time, is there any way to get usable DNA off of the bottles/pills/etc?

Investigator Pishos
The FBI came and talked to me not too long ago [Spring 2012] because they reopened the case. They were going back and swabbing everyone for DNA because I believe they still have the bottles with the capsules, so they are ruling out anyone who was in contact with those bottles.

posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 1:27 PM on September 29, 2014


wtf I do not remember ever hearing before that the main suspect had already been in trouble with the law for having mummified dismembered human remains in a bag in his attic.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:29 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


This was one of those childhood horrors of the 80s: killer bees, devil worshipers, serial killers, needles in Halloween treats, poisoned food/medicine, nuclear war.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:30 PM on September 29, 2014 [45 favorites]


A strange, nostalgic time, when we could open non-sealed packages and just walk in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. What happened?!
posted by Melismata at 1:30 PM on September 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


I think this is the only one of the childhood 80s horrors that's actually basically true.
posted by stoneweaver at 1:32 PM on September 29, 2014 [30 favorites]


Yes the real body count lies in the number of people who have died from failure or waiting for a liver transplant, either because they directly are failing due to Tylenol or another donor is giving to a Tylenol victim. It has this very harmless veneer which was a response to Aspirin deaths in children involving Reye's.

I popped the children's stuff like candy when I felt the least bit off (naughty parents had the display samples from work, no childproof container) as a kid. As it turns out the antioxidant it shuts down in the liver (glutathione) is extremely important for respiratory function (it's the quintessential antioxidant literally handling free radical damage in our breathing apparatus) and there are significant links to asthma and childhood Tylenol use.

The cyanide thing was absolutely terrible and my brain sort of conflated it with the E coli deaths at jack in the box in my single digit age world view.
posted by aydeejones at 1:32 PM on September 29, 2014 [8 favorites]


I am absolutely stunned that you can still buy a thing called Tylenol today

Your comment made me think of these diet candies my mom used to eat, which did not survive having an unfortunate name.
posted by jbickers at 1:33 PM on September 29, 2014 [18 favorites]


This was one of those childhood horrors of the 80s: killer bees, devil worshipers, serial killers, needles in Halloween treats, poisoned food/medicine, nuclear war.

along with jams, rat-tails, pleats, and acid wash.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:34 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


This was one of those childhood horrors of the 80s: killer bees, devil worshipers, serial killers, needles in Halloween treats, poisoned food/medicine, nuclear war.

Absolutely. For some reason I've always associated the un-funnening of trick-or-treating with the Tylenol thing. Now I realize they must have just been concurrent, but unrelated worries.

Another bugbear I always attached to Tylenol during that time period, sometime after it returned to the shelves, was its association with Reye's syndrome. However, I just looked it up, and apparently that was aspirin, not Tylenol.

Tylenol, I apologize to you. I've been holding you responsible for several childhood fears that you had nothing to do with. I'm still afraid of what you could do to my liver, but I'll let you off the hook for Halloween and the threat of Reye's syndrome.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:35 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


By conflating I mean that I learned the cheeseburgers and Tylenol can kill you if they get contaminated and had to reconcile that. Booo.
posted by aydeejones at 1:36 PM on September 29, 2014


aydeejones: and there are significant links to asthma and childhood Tylenol use.

I think you're overstating this claim. There have been studies linking the two, but at least one study concluded that :
children suffering from respiratory infections — which often lead to asthma — are simply more likely to be given over-the-counter pain relievers. These underlying respiratory infections and the fevers they cause, not the use of pain relievers, are responsible for the increased asthma risk, the authors argue.
It looks like there's a more rigorous study going on to better compare those who take acetaminophen and ibuprofen, but saying there's a "significant link" seems to imply causation beyond what we know to be true at this time.
posted by tonycpsu at 1:37 PM on September 29, 2014 [12 favorites]


This is covered in a brilliant series called how regulation came to be on the Daily Kos: How regulation came to be: the Tylenol killings.
posted by ambrosen at 1:38 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


It is my inexpert understanding that autopsies are now a rarity in most municipalities. It's also my inexpert understanding that the symptoms of fatal cyanide poisoning are similar to the symptoms of fatal heart attacks. Easy to mistake one for the other unless one takes special pains to test for cyanide. Which generally isn't done.

If poisonings like these were to happen today, would they even be recognized for what they were? If they weren't concentrated in one city, would there be any hope of linking them?

Could we even say with any confidence that the 1982 killings were the first of their kind? Or indeed, the last?
posted by Western Infidels at 1:40 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


This was a case study in great crisis management in a business class I took. The marketing response was incredibly expensive, but catapulted Johnson & Johnson into the ranks of the best regarded companies in the country. In one survey supposedly a majority of people said the company was a charity rather than a large pharmaceutical corporation.

Of course, even without cyanide, Tylenol is quite a dangerous drug and shouldn't be sold without a prescription. But it still is because profit.
posted by miyabo at 1:40 PM on September 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


Yep Tylenol blew up because of Reye's syndrome. It was rapidly turned into yummy sweet tarts for kids and the liquid stuff and Tylenol started pushing hard. Circumcise your kid and give them Tylenol! Mild fever? Tylenol. Bump on the head? My parents figured I was hold enough for aspirin and I learned I was allergic.

The link between glutathione and liver and respiratory health is well established and Tylenol largely damages the liver by inhibiting its synthesis. This will be borne out in more research but the etiology is hard to explain away.
posted by aydeejones at 1:40 PM on September 29, 2014


One of the truly great episodes of security theatre in history.

It's still trivially easy to smuggle stuff into a pharmacy or grocery store; all the effort is on preventing shoplifters taking product out, and even that's not exactly effective. There are thousands of products on the market that are not tamper-resistant (for instance, all kinds of fruit), and I suspect most tamper-resistant packages are opened with little care. The fact is, there's very little motive for someone to kill random strangers, and there's lots of easier ways (especially in the US) to do so.

Those little bits of plastic do little to prevent poisonings in the food and drug system; what they do is reinforce consumer confidence that our food and drugs are safe, which by any reasonable measure they are. It's almost pure security theatre, but done well - rather than the TSA's expensive, invasive routine that deters people from air travel (and into more dangerous cars), it's a cheap, effective solution to keep people feeling safe.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:45 PM on September 29, 2014 [12 favorites]


Always thought that the responsible party would end up being the guy who invented (or successfully marketed) safety-seals, which started cropping up everywhere after the Tylenol scare.
posted by heyho at 1:49 PM on September 29, 2014 [9 favorites]


For some reason I've always associated the un-funnening of trick-or-treating with the Tylenol thing. Now I realize they must have just been concurrent, but unrelated worries.

My town (East St. Louis, IL--I know, I know) banned trick-or-treating in 1982 right after the Tylenol scare, and that was explicitly why it happened.

I lived in a safe neighborhood on the outskirts and never went to anyone we didn't know, so ten-year-old-I was PISSED about the ban. I ended up going with a friend in a neighboring community that didn't freak out. The haul I got that year was so good (including individual bags of cheese popcorn handed out by policemen tooling around in cruisers) that I went with her for the next few years too. I don't know if ESL ever reinstated it.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:49 PM on September 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


I've ready some newer stuff now I realize I'm a bit out there just yet in terms of a "significant link" but it's not in "woo" territory, it's in "moar research, some docs pick one side, some pick the other" territory. I am 95% confident that in 10 years Tylenol will be black-boxed for this among other reasons, but that's just a strong opinion.

I've just lived my life with too many "I told you so" moments involving oxidative damage and inflammation that have been borne out, starting with the slow realization in America that trans fats are terrible, so I should dial that back.

My response to the "they have more infections and fevers" argument is that they need to focus on the long-term effects of oxidative damage accumulating at an early age (like sun exposure), which like radiation is cumulative and can inhibit someone's ability to thrive to their potential, and weigh that against the effects of bouts of inflammation due to illness and infection. I am totally on board with "don't blame the thing people are self-medicating with for causing the illness they are treating" but self-medicating does introduce bizaree feedback loops (along with supervised careful treatment no less) and fevers are the body's way of more rapidly ending an infection and bringing an end to the damage.

I suspect a lot of infections are prolonged as a result, and the effects of inflammation in the lungs are componded by the oxidative damage, which can persist after the fever and inflammation has stopped hurting the lungs.
posted by aydeejones at 1:52 PM on September 29, 2014


dlugoczaj: For some reason I've always associated the un-funnening of trick-or-treating with the Tylenol thing. Now I realize they must have just been concurrent, but unrelated worries.

My town (East St. Louis, IL--I know, I know) banned trick-or-treating in 1982 right after the Tylenol scare, and that was explicitly why it happened.
Ruining the fun of people passing out Tylenol to little mask-bedecked urchins on Halloween night.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:52 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


Those little bits of plastic do little to prevent poisonings in the food and drug system; what they do is reinforce consumer confidence that our food and drugs are safe, which by any reasonable measure they are.

That's true. The seals could offer some minor benefit, if consumers always hoarded their old seals/packages for comparison with new ones (but what if you've never bought the product before?), and if manufacturers almost never changed the design of their packages. Absent either condition, they're a joke. An intact seal is evidence that somebody glued some foil onto your bottle of vitamins. Whoop-de-doo.
posted by Western Infidels at 1:58 PM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


For some reason, I had it in my mind that the Tylenol murders were earlier than '82. I could have sworn it was something from the mid-to-late 70's. Weird.

I do remember the panic, though. Tylenol was huge back then. Having it suddenly off the shelves was pretty startling.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:04 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think this is the only one of the childhood 80s horrors that's actually basically true.

The poisoned / razor-filled Halloween candy urban myth has at least some of its roots in a real murder by cyanide in the early 70s:

By far the most famous case of Halloween candy poisoning was the murder of eight-year-old Timothy Marc O'Bryan at the hands of his father, Ronald Clark O'Bryan, in Houston, Texas. The child died at 10 p.m. on 31 October 1974, as a result of eating cyanide-laced Pixie Stix acquired while trick-or-treating.

To make his act appear more like the work of a random madman, O'Bryan also gave poisoned Pixie Stix to his daughter and three other children. By a kind stroke of fate, none of the other children ate the candy.

posted by ryanshepard at 2:11 PM on September 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


PR campaign or no, I am absolutely stunned that you can still buy a thing called Tylenol today.

It's mainly because McNeil Consumer Healthcare and Johnson & Johnson ran basically the perfect PR campaign, and step one of that campaign was not denying that it had happened -- indeed, they went on with a huge national campaign that said "Do not take Tylenol or acetaminophen, period, until we figure out what happened." They then recalled every bit of Tylenol in the land, something like $100 million dollars worth, and this was 1982 dollars. That's close to $250 million today.

There was a lot of praise for the way J&J handled this -- it seemed that this wasn't their fault, the products were tampered with well after manufacture, and they were doing everything they could to keep things safe.

That's why the brand name survived -- J&J took huge steps to make sure that it would, and they weren't cheap ones.

I remember this vividly, because at the time, I was living the NW burbs of Chicago, in Hanover Park, and not very far from Elmhurst, Elk Grove Village, and Arlington Heights. Whoever did this was doing it basically in my neighborhood. I remember Mom tossing all the Tylenol. I don't know if they were capsules or tablets, I would suspect tablets, but I was, oh, 14 at the time.
posted by eriko at 2:28 PM on September 29, 2014 [12 favorites]


MetaFilter: killer bees, devil worshipers, serial killers, needles in Halloween treats, poisoned food/medicine, nuclear war.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:07 PM on September 29, 2014


Halloween Sadism: The Evidence
posted by y2karl at 3:14 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think the operating assumption at the time was that one of the victims was intended and the others were cover -- which is pretty damned cold-blooded. But it's also possible that there was an intended victim who dodged a bullet, and all of the actual victims were cover.

I suspect we won't ever know the truth. And after 32 years it's not improbable that the murderer has already died.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:29 PM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was nine years old when this happened, and it stuck in my head so deeply that I still remember two of the serial numbers that were tainted (MC2880 and 1910MD).

I recently bought this book but haven't had a chance to start it yet.
posted by Lucinda at 3:38 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


An intact seal is evidence that somebody glued some foil onto your bottle of vitamins.

If the foil is actually glued, then that is a sign of tampering. A proper induction seal is not so easy to do at home.

The seals themselves are kind of neat. It starts out as a multilayer disc shoved into the cap before it is screwed on the bottle. The layers are:
- cardboard backing
- wax
- foil printed with 'tamper resistant blah blah'
- plastic film

This multilayer disc is glued to the bottom of the cap which is then screwed onto the bottle. Then an induction coil heats the foil to fuse the foil and plastic film to the plastic bottle. It's like a mini induction cooktop and the foil is the pan. This is why foil is used not just plastic.

The cardboard backing is required to keep the foil from fusing to the cap, which would be a problem because you wouldn't be able to open the bottle if that happened. When the foil is heated, the wax that holds the foil to the cardboard melts and is absorbed into the cardboard, separating the foil. You can feel this wax if you touch the inside of the cap.

Pretty nifty engineering.
posted by ryanrs at 3:43 PM on September 29, 2014 [99 favorites]


This is associated in my memory with the recall of Rely tampons in 1980 as part of the growing awareness of toxic shock syndrome. The Rely issue had nothing to do with tampering (!) but was an unfortunate precursor to the Tylenol murders. I was in college at the time and I have a visual memory of seeing unused boxes of Rely in the trash bins of all of the girls' suites.
posted by Morrigan at 3:51 PM on September 29, 2014


> leotrotsky wrote:
I'm stunned that you can still buy it over the counter, given its ability to cause permanent liver damage and death in larger doses.

[TW: suicide]
I just wish Tylenol were required to be sold in blister packages. It’s far too easy to kill yourself with it.

(I have depression, and that’s one reason I don’t allow Tylenol in the house—you just can’t be too careful.)
posted by Handcoding at 3:53 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Most effective medications will cause side effects if you take two or three times the recommended dosage. The answer is to follow the instructions, not to ban the tablet. Paracetamol/acetominophen is much safer than, say, NSAIDs, which cause GI bleeds and renal failure unpredictably even at recommended dosages. I have known several patients with multi-organ failure as a result of normal antibiotic use. Even omeprazole (available OTC in the UK, not sure about US) which is generally extremely safe, can cause some very entertaining idiopathic reactions, again at recommended dosages. That's just the nature of pharmaceuticals, unfortunately.

Hadn't heard about the tampering case, although I remember in the 90s lots of people used to try to extort money from supermarkets/manufacturers by threatening to poison Mars bars.
posted by tinkletown at 4:24 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


I remember this, it happened the year I was in 6th grade. Everyone was terrified about Halloween, just because it was the same time of year. Even being a kid, I was shocked that it was so easy to taint anything that could be purchased right off the shelf.

Amazing that J&J made it through with their reputation intact. Good for them, and they changed the entire industry of over-the-counter medications forever.
posted by Pocahontas at 4:27 PM on September 29, 2014


The biggest issue I have with Tylenol actually has nothing to do with the drug itself - just the name. I'm deathly allergic to aspirin and Ibuprofen; they give me horrible asthma attacks. So, I can only take Tylenol, and I usually only take 1 tablet every two months or so.

But, asking someone if they have a Tylenol that you can take? Some will assume that you're just asking for a generic pain killer, instead of the specific drug. In a class, I had some people try to give me some aspirin when I asked for Tylenol, and then didn't understand why I was staunchly refusing it. Now, on my keychain I have a tiny pill holder - the perfect size for a couple pills of Tylenol. So now I always have some with me.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:29 PM on September 29, 2014 [5 favorites]


The legacy of this, for me, is the Best Halloween Costume ever -- two girls at a community college party, both dressed as Tylenol capsules.

I don't know if they were capsules or tablets, I would suspect tablets, but I was, oh, 14 at the time.

The capsules were really, really common. I can't find one on YT, but there was an iconic ad where they open up a capsule and all the little time-release globules fall out in slow-motion. The red-and-white bi-color scheme of the capsules was practically the image of the company.

I think the operating assumption at the time was that one of the victims was intended and the others were cover -- which is pretty damned cold-blooded. But it's also possible that there was an intended victim who dodged a bullet, and all of the actual victims were cover.

It still makes the most sense. The latter part, though, is crucially perhaps why the murders became unsolvable. Somebody dumped theirs in the trash or down the toilet, did not die, and their associates where never combed through.
posted by dhartung at 5:34 PM on September 29, 2014


The link between glutathione and liver and respiratory health is well established and Tylenol largely damages the liver by inhibiting its synthesis.

This is a little picky but actually APAP (Tylenol/Acetaminophen/Paracetamol) is broken down by several pathways, one of which produces a metabolite which is toxic to the liver. This metabolite is neutralized by glutathione, preventing immediate harm, until available glutathione is depleted and said metabolite accumulates. The reason APAP tolerance is lower in chronic drinkers is that alcohol increases activity of the more dangerous pathway and may also deplete glutathione. Surprisingly, because they compete for the same enzyme on this pathway, taking alcohol *with* an APAP overdose may improve survival, not that I recommend testing this on yourself. I had not until now heard of other side effects related to glutathione.
posted by atoxyl at 5:46 PM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


My mom expressed anxiety about random beheadings the other day. The story of Aerial Gilbert (competitive rower, blinded by over-the-counter eyedrops laced with lye) still haunts me.

Humans are profoundly bad at understanding risk, doubly so for statistics. Seriously, like 99% of us are terrible as statistics, with a 5% margin of error.

I often hear the anecdote of J&J's excellent response to the Tylenol tampering, and yet most people are surprised when I explain the everyday dangers of acetaminophen ("But that's just an exaggeration for legal reasons, right? They wouldn't sell it if it was really dangerous to drink while taking it...").

I honestly, truly give J&J props for their handling of the Tylenol situation at the time; although in general, it would be bad for us all if it was so easy to trigger a costly and terrifying recall of any given consumer product.

Those props are negated by the statistical reality: deaths due to Tylenol tampering are dwarfed by the deaths and suffering due to Tylenol overdose (suicidal or otherwise), and almost nonexistent compared to the hidden health costs of Tylenol use that exceeds its (shockingly narrow) therapeutic range.

I will highlight that this is secondhand info, but according to medical professionals I know Tylenol ought to be a prescription drug, full stop. It's amazing at what it does, but it is perceived as being far safer than it actually is. It would serve very well as a parable of the dangers of pharmaceutical marketing, if it wasn't real.
posted by Riki tiki at 5:52 PM on September 29, 2014 [8 favorites]


I was 12 when this happened, and I remember it vividly. It was a weird time, as over the course of the next few weeks more and more copy-cat incidents occurred. I mean, it really did get weird. I remember sniffing for the smell of bitter almonds from my school lunch milk.

Halloween that year was the first time I remember my parents being concerned about the candy. We lived in a cul-de-sac tract of 50 or 60 starter homes with many of young families. One house at the far end of the neighborhood, i.e. people my parents didn't really know, gave out home-made Rice Krispie treats and Mom made us throw them out. Then again, the preacher on the corner gave out pennies and some kind of church pamphlet. I got in trouble for writing what all the neighborhood kids were thinking in the dew on his windshield the next morning.

As a frequent allergy sufferer, the one thing I wish is that more over-the-counter multi-symptom allergy/decongestant products came without acetaminophen. I don't often need a pain reliever, so I'd rather decide to take aspirin/acetaminophen/ibuprofen/naproxen myself separately than have it come with my allergy medicine.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:59 PM on September 29, 2014 [5 favorites]


there was an iconic ad where they open up a capsule and all the little time-release globules fall out in slow-motion.

I think that was for "Contac" cold medicine. There were different colors of little sub-pills inside!
posted by thelonius at 6:30 PM on September 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


I was a freshman in high school when this happened. I don't know if it was just my school or just in Chicago, but I remember bins labeled 'Tylenol Recall' being placed at each entrance of my high school. I had a newish bottle of Tylenol in my purse at the time and tossed them in feeling worried, creeped out and a little bit like I was going to be in trouble for throwing away an almost full bottle of pills. It's frustrating that the crime has never been solved. It was such a scary, bad time. It felt to me, at fourteen, like anything bad could happen at any time now that someone had done this. Or - why wouldn't it keep happening? All they talked about in the news was the potential for copy cats. I can't believe I went back to feeling cavalier about the safety of packaging so quickly afterward. I think people pretty much put it out of their minds. No packaging is perfectly safe. Yet I take all kinds of things from the drug store (and, as someone mentioned above, eat fruit (!) all the time without a thought).
posted by marimeko at 7:01 PM on September 29, 2014


I was a sophomore at Northwestern when this happened, and I remember someone in my dorm going around and leaving two Tylenol capsules in front of everyone's door. Klassy.
posted by briank at 7:16 PM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


Grey post: I was about ten at the time and only kind of understood what was happening.

(Also: eponysterical!)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:34 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was 12 and growing up in Hinsdale, IL when this happened. It was also on the heels (or just before?) the John Wayne Gacy murders. Either way add in The Day After and nuclear war and it was a freaky time to be a kid. I was just talking to my fiancée the other night and discussing how modern packaging as we know it is all from this incident. She is nine years younger than me and has had safety packaging her whole life.
posted by MarvinTheCat at 7:52 PM on September 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


Morrigan: "This is associated in my memory with the recall of Rely tampons in 1980 as part of the growing awareness of toxic shock syndrome. "

Don't forget the whole Dalkon Shield thing.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:15 PM on September 29, 2014


A close family member of mine was interviewed by the FBI after purchasing aspirin and bug spray simultaneously at the Jewel at which one of the victims had purchased a lethal bottle weeks earlier. Somebody followed him to the parking lot, took down his license plate, and called it in.

Seems to me that law enforcement really did work a lot of leads that were not all that promising in an effort to find the culprit; it's such a disappointment that they never have.
posted by burden at 9:03 PM on September 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


And I'd add that Helen Jensen, public health nurse for Arlington Heights featured in Ian A.T.'s link, belongs in the pantheon of unsung heroes who saved a lot of lives by doing their jobs well and thoughtfully, and by not taking no for an answer when it was important not to.

It's also pretty important that Arlington Heights, which had a population of about 66,000 in 1980, even had a public health nurse on staff. Perhaps remembering the lives that Helen Jensen saved, they have two now. I wonder how many similarly-sized cities do the same.
posted by burden at 9:14 PM on September 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


How strange that I remembered this as having been solved, more or less at the time. My memory is that it was some guy who had one particular victim in mind (a father-in-law? uncle? an older relative basically). He spiked the victims and then some more just to cover up that it was all targeted at one person.

Obviously I misremembered, but am I conflating some other product tampering? Was there a suspect matching that scenario who was eventually cleared? Where did I get this idea? I was pretty young at the time, but I remember my parents talking about this.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:18 PM on September 29, 2014


according to medical professionals I know Tylenol ought to be a prescription drug, full stop.

And if we want to play dueling anecdotes: according to the doctors I know, acetaminophen is a safe drug that is perfectly fine to remain available over-the-counter. The risks come from lack of consumer education and the availability of giant bottles of high dose pills. Its therapeutic range is not "shockingly narrow." Rather, serious side effects can occur not far outside that range. But the therapeutic range of acetaminophen is comparable to the NSAIDs.

The fact is that a very large number of people cannot take NSAIDs at all because they are severely contraindicated for them (e.g. for starters just about everyone with Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, about a million people in the US alone). For them, acetaminophen is the only over-the-counter pain reliever available. Making it "prescription, full stop" would dramatically increase costs and decrease access to safe, effective pain relief for literally millions of people, many of whom have significant pain relief needs.

Does acetaminophen have risks? Yes, all drugs have risks, but they must be weighed against their benefits. Readily-available acetaminophen provides enormous benefits to millions of people.
posted by jedicus at 9:19 PM on September 29, 2014 [8 favorites]


If only I had a penguin, you are probably thinking of Stella Nickell, although she used Excedrin rather than Tylenol.
posted by Flannery Culp at 9:51 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think that was for "Contac" cold medicine.

Ah. You are correct. But this means you remember the 70s, so I still win.

And if we want to play dueling anecdotes: according to the doctors I know, acetaminophen is a safe drug that is perfectly fine to remain available over-the-counter.

It's really a pretty complex question, and there is indeed a group of professionals who believe it should be much more restricted. It actually is heavily restricted in other countries, and the FDA has dragged its feet on implementing recommendations of its own expert panels, so this is far more than anecdote. A ProPublica article last year summed up much of the regulatory wrangling [previously]. There are serious questions here regarding whether the FDA views McNeil as too big to rein in.
posted by dhartung at 11:11 PM on September 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


The real problem with Tylenol, at someone noted above, is that it's shoehorned into half of the over-the-counter cold medications in the U.S. It's very easy to over-medicate if you take a daytime allergy combo, tylenol for a headache and NyQuil or something like it.

Tangential, but I have to give a shout-out to Jack White of The White Stripes, who rhymed "acetaminophen" in a song (with "I see the medicine"). Much more impressive than the palindrome "Lonely Tylenol." (by William Irvine, I believe, but kind of a found object)
posted by msalt at 11:41 PM on September 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


Every time I struggle to pierce/unglue the foil inner liner in a bottle of anything, I remember the man who did not have the courage to divorce his wife so he he tried to poison her. Who says one person can't have a great effect, especially if it is harmful?
posted by Cranberry at 11:56 PM on September 29, 2014


I'm just glad that someone hasn't used tamper-evident hacking technology to do this sort of thing again. (41 min 19 seconds is the pertinent part)
posted by el io at 2:06 AM on September 30, 2014


The man who wrote the letter asking for money to stop the killings (mentioned in the TIME article) was, as of a couple years ago, still living in Cambridge. In the same building as one of my former co-workers. Not typing his name because he's apparently still a creepy weirdo troublemaker.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:25 AM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


and yet most people are surprised when I explain the everyday dangers of acetaminophen ("But that's just an exaggeration for legal reasons, right? They wouldn't sell it if it was really dangerous to drink while taking it...").

Off work with a nasty cold, having drunk a mug of lemon'n'acetaminophen earlier, I'm glad I decided to finish reading this thread before wandering downstairs to absentmindedly make a throat-clearing ginger and whisky toddy.
posted by forgetful snow at 3:56 AM on September 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ah, thanks, Flannery Culp. That must be what I was thinking of.

And yeah, they should just ban OTC sale of acetemininphen mixed with other drugs. Too many people don't read the ingredients. And slap a giant (cigarette box style) warning on it: "Do not take this if you drink 3 or more servings of alcohol per week." or whatever is a suitable threshold.

People on blood thinners also cannot take NSAIDs.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:01 AM on September 30, 2014


The weird thing was, at least for a while on Chicago television, along with the heroic
measures J&J took to ameliorate fear and damage, they also seemingly double-downed
on their regular commercials for the product. I mean, like, every other commercial on
tv was for Tylenol. This allowed for me much exercise in adolescent-style mirth when
the actor playing the doctor would strongly recommend to the actor playing a patient
to try Tylenol for pain relief, and I would loudly plea to the television, "NOOO! God no!!!
Please! NOOOOOooooooo! Run, run!!!"
posted by Chitownfats at 6:54 AM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm glad I decided to finish reading this thread before wandering downstairs to absentmindedly make a throat-clearing ginger and whisky toddy.

One mug certainly isn't going to kill you. It's the daily drinkers, the real alcoholics, who are drinking 8-10 drinks per day minimum and then getting rid of the morning hangover with 2-4 extra strength tylenols who are in danger of liver damage. Guess how I know.
posted by poffin boffin at 7:34 AM on September 30, 2014 [5 favorites]


But, asking someone if they have a Tylenol that you can take? Some will assume that you're just asking for a generic pain killer, instead of the specific drug

I've run into that. I've found that being very specific is the right answer. "Does anyone have any aspirin? Not Tylenol, not Alleve, not naproxen, not ibuprofen, not acetaminophen* but aspirin?"

Humans often mean well, but our pattern-matching brains do lead us astray, and people will think "that's a painkiller, I have a painkiller, I'll offer that" not understanding that you were asking for a specific one and that there are good reasons for asking for that specific one.

I think I have some acetaminophen in the house. I keep a small amount of it, plus aspirin and naproxen sodium, for guests. My go to painkiller is ibuprofen.

Hmm. I should also go check how long those have been there.


* Say "paracetamol" instead when overseas (except Japan,) and APAP is very common as well. I'm not sure why N-(4-hydroxyphenyl)acetamide has *three* generic names, all derived from para-acetylaminophenol, but it does, and if you're trying to get the stuff in the UK, paracetamol will get it and acetaminophen will often get you quizzical looks. Pharmicists will generally know both name
posted by eriko at 8:35 AM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh, man, this brings back memories. Mostly memories of being afraid, because Mom was afraid of a lot of things, and over-the-counter medications in general became one of them for a while.

But I come from an extended family of crazy redneck weirdos, so most of the memories are of them throwing holy fits every time they had to open a safety cap or seal. (I'll substitute faux-fanity to make it SFW.) "Jiminy Cricket! Because of one gosh-darn ashtray the rest of us have to suffer? I never heard anything so flipping stupid in all my life! Those gol-dang chickenships are scared of a lawsuit now, but nobody's gonna put up with this bullhockey for long. See if the baskets don't go back to the regular bottles in a year. For Cripe's sake!"

Also, from roughly 1982 to 1985, any time you mentioned pain of any kind, one of them would put something in your hand and say, "Here, take some of these extra-strength Tylenol capsules I bought in Chicago a while back."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:03 AM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm stunned that you can still buy it over the counter, given its ability to cause permanent liver damage and death in larger doses. Pharmaceuticals gonna pharmaceut, I guess - leotrotsky

Or booze is gonna booze?
posted by readyfreddy at 1:57 PM on September 30, 2014


There is compelling evidence that Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was also the Tylenol killer. One of the Unabomber victims, for example, was a PR rep for Johnson & Johnson who helped revive the Tylenol brand. I urge anyone interested to give it a Google. It's a rabbit hole.
posted by gentian at 6:10 PM on September 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


I remember they canceled Halloween in my hometown the year the Tylenol poisonings happened.
posted by jonp72 at 8:23 PM on September 30, 2014


Seriously, like 99% of us are terrible as statistics, with a 5% margin of error.

So if I have this right (and I'm certain that I do), that means up to 104% of us are terrible at statistics.

Sounds about right.
posted by malocchio at 10:42 AM on October 1, 2014


Aw, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. Forty percent of all people know that.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:56 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


So I've started to read the book, and at one point the author states that "The Tylenol murders case was the most extensively covered news event since the assassination of John F. Kennedy."

Which seems accurate, considering how seared it is in the minds of many of us.
posted by Lucinda at 12:59 PM on October 1, 2014


There is compelling evidence that Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was also the Tylenol killer.

I'm not sure it amounts to evidence, just compelling coincidence, but it was enough for the FBI to seek Kaczynski's DNA. That was in 2011 (Lewis supplied his in 2010), and as recently as 2012 (the 30th anniversary) there was talk of a grand jury.
posted by dhartung at 2:43 PM on October 1, 2014


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