Poison on the platter
According to various studies, particularly those conducted by environmental watchdogs, between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the food products available on the markets in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere in the country are contaminated by poisonous formalin, calcium carbide and other chemicals that are detrimental to human health, writes Saifur Rahman Tapan
EIGHTY per cent children in Sirajdikhan, an upazila (sub-district) of Munshiganj, some 20 kilometres south of the capital Dhaka, have high level of lead in their blood, says a study conducted by the Dhaka Community Medical College and Hospital, in association with the Harvard School of Public Health and Boston Children’s Hospital of the United States. According to the study, the findings of which were made public on November 14, 227 of the 284 children examined had more than five micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood. While 5mcg/dl was set as the baseline, people who conducted the study themselves maintained that it should have been zero. In any case, 73 of the children studied had more than 10mcg of lead per decilitre of blood; five had more than 20mcg/dl. The study also found lead beyond the permissible limit in 12 out of the 18 samples of turmeric powder used in preparing food.
According to experts, lead is injurious to human health. While severe lead exposure (blood-lead level greater than 80mcg/dl) can result in coma, convulsions or even death, low-level exposure (blood-lead level of around 10mcg/dl) can prevent production of haemoglobin necessary for oxygen transport besides interfering with normal cellular calcium metabolism and thus hampering kidney functions. When it comes to children, exposure to the heavy metal can cause more damage. Recent studies in the US have found that low but elevated blood-lead levels leave adverse effects on children’s central nervous system hampering their mental growth. Also, the presence of 10-15mcg/dl lead in their blood affects their physical growth, birth-weight, gestational age, auditory functioning, attention span, blood pressure, etc. Some scientists say low-level chronic lead exposure in childhood can also cause obesity, some effects that may persist even into adulthood. Alarmingly still, most children do not show overt symptoms of lead-poisoning because of which the majority of such cases go undetected.
The findings of the study by the Dhaka Community Medical College and Hospital came amidst increasing public concern over the revelation that the turmeric powder marketed by Pran, a local business conglomerate, has excessive amount of lead. Although the community hospital study and its findings did not make it clear if the contaminated samples of turmeric powder collected from Sirajdikhan included Pran products, the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution revealed that the company’s turmeric powder then available on markets across the capital in particular contained between 40 and 58 parts per million of lead, way above the 2.5ppm permissible limit set by the BSTI. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration of the US had detected as high as 53ppm of lead in the turmeric powder exported by Pran to the country.
The Pran Group is among the few local companies that have grown over the past few decades and gained control over the domestic marked once dominated by foreign, that too, substandard products. Moreover, it has been exporting a variety of its food products to a number of countries for the past few years. More importantly, its products enjoyed popularity amid adulteration of different products, including food, on the one hand and chemical treatment of fruits on the other. According to various studies, particularly those conducted by environmental watchdogs, between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the food products available on the markets in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere in the country are contaminated by poisonous formalin, calcium carbide and other chemicals that are detrimental to human health. It cannot, regrettably, be denied that the revelation about the lead contamination of Pran turmeric powder has surely dented public confidence on the company’s products at least to a significant extent. One can refer here to the fact that, following advice from the BSTI, the company has already withdrawn the turmeric powder from all markets across the country.
The BSTI is the sole government authority to issue certificates to any product, locally produced and imported, to be marketed here about its quality in particular. In this context, one has reasons to doubt if the institution gave licence to Pran turmeric powder after conducting the necessary tests. Pertinently, high level of lead contamination in the Pran turmeric powder was first detected in the US, and the BCSIR and the BSTI have reportedly just followed suit. In other words, the authorities in Bangladesh, including the BSTI, may have been in slumber before the US media made the malpractice public.
Allegations have it that there is a nexus between a section of BSTI officials and people dealing in substandard goods. And this is perhaps why, despite public demand on repeated occasions, like all other relevant government authorities, the BSTI officials hardly came forward with any effective steps against adulteration of food in particular. Even a number of orders issued by the High Court for measures to rein in the evil practice seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Of course, there have been some drives by different agencies, including the BSTI, against adulterated food business in the past four years and a half or so. One cannot, however, deny as well that at the end of the day, all this proved to be futile exercises as the drives were episodic on the one hand and the punishment meted out through them was hardly deterrent on the other. It may also be worth noting that reports have been there that almost all the paints available in the country have excessive amount of lead. That apart, as paints are widely used by people of all walks of life for various purposes, including painting homes, furniture, etc, public health is really threatened by the heavy metal. According to experts, any form of contact with lead is harmful for human health. Despite all this, however, there is still hardly any step on the part of BSTI to stop the sale of lead-based paint in the country.
Lead is generally used in a paint to increase the latter’s brightness crucial for alluring people to use it. Lead is used in turmeric powder for the same purpose even though it has nothing to do with the usefulness of the spice, widely used in cooking curry not only in Bangladesh but also in South Asia. In addition, people who mix lead with turmeric powder do so knowing full well about its harmful impact on human health.
Other than the absence of monitoring over such notorious business by the government, the lack of awareness among people about safe food is responsible for all this as well. In this respect, of course, one has reasons to raise questions about the role of the non-government organisations claiming to be environment and public health watchdogs. Although such organisations have virtually mushroomed in recent years thanks, perhaps, to various international donors’ focus on environmental issues, almost all of them still limit their activities to the capital or at best the divisional headquarters. Additionally, their activities dependent largely on foreign fund predominantly include seminars and discussions held in air-conditioned rooms of luxury hotels. Overall, the awareness programmes organised by the environmental rights organisations hardly reach ordinary people.
Be that as it may, it is time for conscious people in particular to wake up and raise voice against the menace in a sustained manner. For only mass awareness can mount pressure on the government to act on the issue.
Saifur Rahman Tapan is an assistant editor at New Age.
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According to various studies, particularly those conducted by environmental watchdogs, between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the food products available on the markets in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere in the country are contaminated by... Full story