Are your pallets making people sick? For Johnson & Johnson, the answer may be yes.
When the consumer healthcare giant had to recall some lots of its Tylenol Arthritis Pain Caplets in November and December, it pointed the finger at an unlikely culprit: its wooden shipping pallets. The recall came after consumers complained of a musty, moldy odor that was causing nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, and diarrhea. As a precautionary measure, J&J has extended the recall to include more lots of its Tylenol products, including Regular Strength and Extra Strength Tylenol, as well as certain lots and formulations of Motrin IB, Rolaids, Benadryl, and St. Joseph Aspirin. (For specific lot numbers, visit Johnson & Johnson's Web site.)
J&J believes the cause of the odor is the chemical 2,4,6-tribromoanisole and the source is wood pallets used to transport and store packaging material at its Puerto Rico plant. The company theorizes that the lumber used in the pallets was treated with the fungicide tribromophenol (TBP). When TBP dries, it crystallizes and can become embedded in the wood fiber. If that wood gets wet again, the moisture can cause the chemical to break down into the odor-causing 2,4,6-tribromoanisole.
TBP is banned in the United States, Europe, and Canada. In recent years, however, the rising demand and prices of North American wood led many pallet manufacturers to begin sourcing their wood from South America, where the fungicide is still used.
Bruce Scholnick, president of the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA), calls the incident "an anomaly." How the odor was absorbed by the Tylenol bottles and why it was not detected earlier at the shelf-level remains "a big mystery," says Scholnick. The executive says he has been in contact with Johnson & Johnson throughout the recall process.
Derek Hannum, marketing director for pallet pooler CHEP, which does not use pallets treated with TBP, says 2,4,6-tribromoanisole is known to be a powerful compound that can penetrate other materials, including plastic and corrugate. (Johnson & Johnson is not a CHEP customer.)
Both Scholnick and Hannum recommend that concerned shippers make sure their suppliers can certify that their wood pallets were not treated with TBP.
"Ask suppliers for details on their quality control process," says Hannum. "Do they actually track and trace the source of their materials? Is there a specific standard that outlines what additives and preservatives are permitted (if any)? And how do they monitor and control for that?"
For example, CHEP, which requires that the raw materials used in its pallets be free of hazardous substances (including TBP), uses a third-party organization to ensure that suppliers comply with its rules. The third party conducts regular audits of CHEP's suppliers, especially those in South America. As part of the process, the auditor takes a cross sample of the material and sends it to a lab for analysis.
Johnson & Johnson declined to speak to DC Velocity for this article but said in a Jan. 15 press release that it is "ceasing shipment of products produced using materials shipped on these wood pallets and requiring suppliers who ship materials to our plants to discontinue the use of these pallets."