Metallic poison in food we consume

The presence of toxic levels of lead and cadmium in Chinese metallic toys is most shocking as they are hazardous to children’s health. The toys have been widely used throughout the world, including India. Children have a tendency to chew and swallow, thereby prone to lead and cadmium poisoning. The high amount of these metals in the blood of children can lead to impaired intellectual and physical growth.

Over two million such Chinese toys, including Barbie dolls, coloured with paint laced with lead have been recalled by the US-based companies. UN environmental health experts have called for a global ban on lead-based paint in major countries — including India, China and Malaysia. Many paints in India have 30 times higher lead than permissible under UN regulations.

Certain foodstuffs and drinking water contain high levels of metallic poison (arsenic, mercury, nickel, lead, cadmium, etc) which accumulate in body tissues and cause a variety of ailments. Green leafy vegetables contain high amount of lead, chromium, arsenic, mercury and nickel. Turmeric samples contained arsenic, cadmium and lead. Irrigation by sewage water and industrial effluents is responsible for accumulation of heavy metals in vegetables. Untreated industrial waste water makes 80 per cent groundwater unpotable as it contains toxic levels of mercury, arsenic, etc.

Utensils and containers

The presence of metallic contaminants in utensils and food containers has been a subject of controversy. The canning industry has been taking extra precaution to devise containers so that the food is not contaminated and is safe for human consumption. Non-refrigerated food is often transported in general containers with timber floors. The absorbent nature of timber stimulates the microbial conversion of chlorophenols to chloroanisoles. Therefore, extreme care is required in using general purpose containers for transporting foodstuffs and packaging materials.

The presence of dangerously high concentration of metallic poison in drinking water has been a severe health hazard for millions of Indians. The problem of arsenic poisoning is a global threat to health affecting more than 137 million people and is widespread in many countries. Over one million people spread in eight districts in West Bengal have been victims of arsenic poisoning through potable water.

Arsenic contamination in groundwater is gradually increasing in many districts of other states like Assam, UP and Jharkhand. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences has reported that the arsenic level in Yamuna river is much higher than the permissible limit.
Arsenic accumulation causes serious health risks. Arsenic is a carcinogen. It produces ill-effects like skin, bladder and lung cancer, liver and spleen enlargement, loss of appetite and a discoloured pigmentation on the skin. There is a need to educate people that treatment of water with alum and bleaching powder is the cheapest method to remove arsenic.

Mercury is listed as a hazardous chemical. There is a growing concern, in the USA over mercury contamination in fish. Inhalation of its vapours causes a number of diseases like gastro-intestinal disorders, abdominal pain, dermatitis, respiratory problems, miscarriage and infertility.

In India, caustic soda and chlorine producing units have been causing high levels of mercury poisoning. The Centre for Science and Environment has reported that around 60-70 tonnes of mercury is released into the atmosphere every year. Its pollution in the Thane-Belapur industrial area in Maharashtra has been posing a serious threat. It is reported that the Sediment in the Ulhas river contained high levels of mercury and arsenic and is a potential source for disaster.

Lead contamination of food has been on the increase due to pollution from industry and automobiles. Besides metallic toys being source of lead poisoning, other articles commonly used include lead pencils, house and furniture paint, batteries, water pipes, sealing cement (safeda), etc. Organic lead emitted from cars, on inhalation, gets easily absorbed in brain, liver, kidney and blood, which becomes acumulative poison leading to brain damage, muscular paralysis, convulsions and even death.

The risk from metallic contaminants is thus widespread, and adequate precautions are required for survival. Consumers should be educated against the toxic threat from metallic contaminants. The government should develop a regulatory mechanism for food safety to maintain quality levels as stipulated in the international standards. There is also a need for a campaign against industries releasing untreated and toxic effluents.

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