Xizhi preschoolers to be tested for sedatives in new drug-related case
Taipei, June 16 (CNA) New Taipei will test students at a preschool in the city's Xizhi District for sedative drugs on Saturday after a student there showed traces of a controlled sedative medication, though the medical community was divided over whether the finding was significant.
New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜) said the city's Education Department sent people to the school as soon as it learned of the test result on Thursday and initiated an investigation into the matter.
The department officials also surveyed parents on Thursday and Friday on their willingness to have their children tested, and asked New Taipei City Tucheng Hospital to send doctors Saturday to collect urine samples and answer medical questions that people might have, Hou said.
Hou and his New Taipei administration have come under fire after reports emerged that eight students in a Banqiao District preschool had traces of barbiturates in their bodies.
It was those reports that led the parents of the child in Xizhi to have their child tested for controlled substances on June 9.
According to New Taipei authorities, the child's urine screening test detected the presence of benzodiazepines -- depressants that produce sedation -- at a concentration of 20 ng/mL on June 12 and 29 ng/mL the next day in a recheck.
Both results were lower than 200 ng/mL -- the threshold that determines if a test specimen is positive or negative -- and were considered negative.
Nonetheless, police on Thursday questioned the Xizhi school principal, a primary caregiver and two other staff over the case. The caregiver denied any wrongdoing, saying he or she had only given children medicine as instructed by their parents.
In Taiwan, parents often sign consent forms asking preschool teachers to help give doctor-prescribed medicine to students.
Complicating the Xizhi case was a split in the medical community over the significance of the results.
Chao Ming-wei (招名威), an associate professor of bioscience technology at Chung Yuan Christian University, questioned Thursday why benzodiazepines would make it into a child's body, noting that it is a third-level controlled drug in Taiwan.
"It should be zero when tested," he wrote in a Facebook post.
Lin Ching-feng (林慶豐), director of the Ministry of Health and Welfare's (MOHW) Hospital and Social Welfare Organizations Administration Commission, said benzodiazepines concentration lower than 200 ng/mL are considered within normal range.
Taiwan Society of Clinical Pathologists and Laboratory Medicine President Chu Fang-yeh (朱芳業) also urged the public not to panic if the reading is below 200 ng/ml, saying that the threshold has been scientifically validated and verified.
Even if the reading exceeds 200 ng/ml, there is still a chance of a false positive and further confirmation through mass spectrometry is needed, he said.
The MOHW said it would send the toddler's urine sample to a third party to further analyze it using a mass spectrometer.
In response to the case and the problem discovered in Banqiao, the Executive Yuan on Friday established an inter-ministerial task force to clarify testing standards of sedative drugs and assist with the placement of preschool children.
The task force will consist of members from the health, education and justice ministries, Cabinet spokesman Lin Tze-luen (林子倫) told reporters, and will also be aimed at examining preschools under the jurisdiction of local governments.
In the Banqiao case, the principal of the school and seven of its teachers were released on bail last week after being questioned over allegations that some of the school's children were drugged with sedatives.
New Taipei prosecutors had yet to give an update on the case as of Friday, and it was unclear where the drugs came from and how the children consumed them and for how long.
Both benzodiazepines and barbiturates are prescription drugs used in hospitals and are classified as Level 3 controlled substances by the Ministry of Justice, meaning that theoretically they should not be easily accessible to the general public, local doctors have said.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has criticized Hou's government for dragging its feet in holding the Banqiao preschool responsible and in providing assistance to the affected children and their parents.
Hou, who is the opposition Kuomintang's presidential candidate, and his party, on the other hand, have accused the DPP of spreading rumors about the case in order to score political points and the prosecutors of dragging their feet in the investigation to help the ruling party.
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