Melamine, the cheap compound used to bulk up baby formula in China that has sickened at least 1,200 babies across the country and killed at least two so far, once had a much less dubious purpose and, in fact, can be found in some form in most American homes.
Composed of nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen, the compound was invented in the 1830s by a German scientist and came into fashion as a material used to make plastics and laminates in the late 1930s. When combined with formaldehyde and exposed to extreme heat, melamine creates a moldable material that, when cooled, is virtually unbreakable and dishwasher-safe. This made it the durable dishware of choice on some U.S. Navy ships during World War II. After the war, designer Russel Wright and the St. Louis-based company Branchell, among others, developed molded dinnerware out of melamine, known as Melmac, designing sets under names like "Flair," "Fortiflex" and "Color-Flyte." Throughout the 1950s, as Americans started buying processed foods and washing machines, clamoring for anything that conveyed "modern," colorful melamine bowls and plates became mainstays in kitchens across the country. Unfortunately, Melmac tableware was prone to scratches and stains and so the dishes fell out of favor by the 1970s, as more resilient household plastics were phased in and families returned to ceramic, china and glass-made dishes.
In the past decade or so, Melmac has become popular again, with collectors and savvy eBay dealers selling Wright and Branchell pieces, and new designers using the material for retro-themed household items.
But as melamine experienced a resurgence in American kitchens, the material in powdered form has also come into use by certain unscrupulous food companies as a cheap and abundant filler substance for products ranging from livestock feed to pet food and now, apparently, to baby formula. In some tests used to determine the nutritional value of a foodstuff, melamine shows up as a protein so manufacturers can use the compound to make their products appear more nutritious. Melamine is not toxic, but inside the body it can cause kidney stones and renal failure. In 2007, material containing melamine but labeled as wheat gluten and rice protein was shipped from Chinese manufacturers to pet food companies in the U.S. and elsewhere. After a Canadian pet food company announced it was voluntarily recalling food that was sickening pets, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fielded thousands of similar complaints across the U.S. Soon after, a myriad of pet foods contaminated with the tainted gluten and protein from China were recalled from the market, but not before thousands of pets had died from renal failure.
This month, under pressure from the New Zealand government, which had received complaints that a Chinese manufacturer was ignoring reports that its baby formula was sickening infants, China announced an investigation. Days later, it emerged that more than 1,000 babies were sick, many contracting kidney stones, after consuming melamine-tainted formula. At least two babies have died. On Sept. 13, China said that 19 people have been detained in the ensuing probe. Some critics, however, have suggested China knew about the link between the sick babies and malamine-laced formula months ago well before the Summer Olympics in Beijing but did not investigate until external pressure left them no choice.