I don't know about you, but opening a new bottle of over-the-counter medication is an exercise in frustration. First, you have to pull apart the glue securing the cardboard box. Next, you have to use super-human strength to open the pop-up cap, then you have to contend with the foil seal beneath the cap.
There was a time, before 1982 when all you had to do was twist off the top, but all that changed 37 years ago on a Wednesday morning, September 29, 1982. 12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois had a sore throat and a runny nose. Her parents suggested she take a Tylenol Extra-Strength capsule which was made of gelatin and easy to swallow.
As Mary's father told the Chicago Tribune, Mary went into the bathroom, took a pill, then dropped to the floor. She was pronounced dead at Alexian Brothers Medical Center.
In another Northwest Chicago suburb, Arlington Heights, postal worker Adam Janus took a sick day because he was getting a cold. After picking up his kids from preschool, Janus stopped at a Jewel supermarket and picked up some Tylenol Extra-Strength.
Following lunch, he took two capsules, staggered into his kitchen, and died. Rushing to Janus's house to comfort his wife was his brother, Stanley, 25, and Stanley's wife, Theresa, 19. Feeling headaches brought on by stress, they each took some Tylenol Extra-Strength capsules and collapsed.
At 6:30 p.m. that same day, Mary McFarland, a 31-year-old resident of Elmhurst, Illinois, a Western suburb, told coworkers she had a headache. She went into a back room, took a pill, and collapsed.
That evening, Arlington Heights public health nurse Helen Jensen walked into the Janus' home in search of what could have killed three members of the same family. Seeing that there were six pills missing from the bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol, and three dead people, in a brilliant bit of deduction, Jensen insisted that the Tylenol bottle be brought in for testing. Tests revealed that the capsules were filled with potassium cyanide.
At 9:30 p.m. that night, flight attendant Paula Prince, 35, stopped off on her way home from the airport at a Walgreen's drug store close to her Near Northside Chicago home and bought some Extra-Strength Tylenol.
At 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, September 30, 1982, 27-year-old Mary Weiner of Winfield, a Western suburb not far from Elmhurst, was pronounced dead. At 5:00 p.m. on Friday, October 1, 1982, police discovered the body of Paula Prince in her apartment. An open bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol was found sitting on her vanity, and it was determined that she had been dead since Wednesday night. A security camera at Walgreen's had captured Prince buying the bottle of Tylenol.
How did cyanide get into the capsules?
Authorities determined that the pills came from different production plants, and were sold in different drug stores around the Chicago area. With the announcement that cyanide was in Tylenol capsules, hospital switchboards and poison control hotlines became overwhelmed by worried consumers.
The contaminated capsules had been bought at Jewel-Osco stores in Arlington Heights and Elk Grove Village, a Frank's Finer Foods in Winfield, and at a North Side Chicago Walgreen's drug store. In addition to the five bottles that led to the victims' deaths, three other contaminated bottles were later discovered. Tests revealed cyanide in Tylenol capsules from a Dominick’s grocery store near to the Walgreen's where Paula Prince had made her purchase.
Police concluded that someone must have acquired bottles of Tylenol from supermarkets or drug stores over a period of time. He or she then added cyanide to some of the capsules, then methodically placed the bottles on store shelves.
Johnson & Johnson quickly acts
Tylenol's maker, McNeil Consumer Products, which was a subsidiary of healthcare giant, Johnson & Johnson, swung into action. They issued warnings to the media, hospitals, distributors and retail outlets. They stopped producing Tylenol, and on October 5, 1982, they issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol products.
The value of the recalled product was over $100 million then, which is $267 million in 2018. The effects of the poisonings on Johnson & Johnson were enormous. Before the poisonings, their market share had been over 35% of the over-the-counter pain reliever market. After the poisonings, that share dropped to less than 8%.
In November 1982, Johnson & Johnson reintroduced capsules but sold them in a new, triple-sealed package. This new packaging became the industry standard for all over-the-counter medications. Johnson & Johnson also created the "caplet" which was a tablet coated with gelatin that, unlike capsules, couldn't be opened and tampered with. Over the next several years, Tylenol regained its market share of the pain reliever market in the U.S.
Tamper-proof packaging is born
Johnson & Johnson led the way in tamper-proof packaging. Types of tamper-resistant packing include:
- Metal bubble-top lids that have a "safety button" which pops out if the jar has been opened
- A shrink band which is placed over the closure and tightened in a shrink tunnel, some have perforations or nicks to help initiate a tear
- Roll-on metal closures connected by thin bridges to the cap, they are broken when the cap is unscrewed
- Plastic integral bands that must be ripped before the container can be opened
- Tearable metal bands
- Heat-shrunk capsules.
In 1983, the U.S. Congress passed what became called "The Tylenol Bill," which made it a federal offense to tamper with consumer products. In 1989, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established federal guidelines for manufacturers, requiring them to make all such products tamper-proof. In early 2009, police in Illinois renewed their investigation into the poisonings.
To this day, no one has been charged with the crime.
In 2012, James Zagel, Director of the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement told Chicago Magazine "You see a lot of terrible things in this business. You see a lot of terrible things even as a judge. And your mind sort of puts them away. But there are some things that you simply can’t close the book on, and what you can’t close the book on is not the investigative stuff and the various things you did. It’s the human parts of it, and the inhuman events that caused them, and it sticks with you.