The Cot Death Cover-up
by Dr. Jim Sprott
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 about unexpectedly.
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 overcome it.
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
(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 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
On this note started the research program 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.
If you would like to buy
Dr. Jim Sprott (Penguin 1996)