My maiden trip to Bangladesh in late October 2013 will be memorable for primarily three reasons. The simple yet breathtaking beauty of the country’s landscape, the unbelievably warm welcome and amazing friendships that formed and lastly for the shocking realization that Bangladesh and indeed entire south Asia is slowly poisoning its food and future.
The chemical formalin is derived by dissolving formaldehyde in water. Formaldehyde is used extensively in industry for the manufacture of plastic resins that can be used in wood, paper and textile industry. At home, formaldehyde is produced by cigarettes and other tobacco products, gas cookers, and open fireplaces . Formaldehyde is immediately dangerous to life and health at 20 ppm. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that formaldehyde is carcinogenic and linkes it to nasal and lung cancer, with possible links to brain cancer and leukaemia . Formalin is widely used as a preservative of dead bodies. In Asia formalin is illegally added in food for its preservative effects .
The common incriminated food items are meat and meat derivates, chicken paws, crustaceans and fish. Acute toxicity after eating a certain amount can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting, coma, renal injury and possible death .
The chemical is also used in preserving fruits and vegetables. Its biggest plus is that it fools people into thinking that the food is fresh. The fish treated with formalin might smell odd and be stiff but ‘looks’ fresh. The traders may dip the whole fish or inject formalin in the fish body cavity or spread formalin mixed water on the fish surface while the fish are displayed for purchase .
The chemical economy
With all the information, I was left wondering about the possible merits and demerits of meat eating. The prices of food in Bangladesh ensure that vegetables are a premium commodity. My discussions with fellow participants revealed that a kilogram of vegetables on an average (roughly speaking) costs around double of a kilogram of fish or poultry. This left me wondering about lack of nutrients in food for the vast majority of people across south Asia. India fares no better though the prices of certain vegetables might be less than meat in India, nutrition levels in the region are abysmal. The vegetarian in me desperately wanted to believe that I was exposed to less chemicals than my non-vegetarian counterparts. But I know better.
Bananas are treated with acetylene gas to quicken their ripening and give them a bright yellow colour by using a chemical equally harmful – calcium carbide .Calcium Carbide is extremely hazardous to the human body because it contains traces of arsenic and phosphorous. Once dissolved in water, the carbide produces acetylene gas, an analogue of the natural ripening agents produced by fruits known as ethylene. Acetylene imitates the ethylene and quickens the ripening process. The chemical fertiliser urea is used in our rice to make it whiter.
Much of the red chilli powder available in the market is adulterated with brick dust. Fine sawdust is often mixed with cumin and other ground spices. Honey is frequently adulterated with sugar syrup. Pure oil is also many times mixed with animal fat, palm oil, potato mash, and vegetable oil to produce fake butter oil. Soap ingredients like steirian oil are mixed with ghee, to increase the proportions. The list is endless.
Trade sources in India say preserving fish in formalin is a common practice across India. Formalin is available over the counter and is cheap, hence it is often used to illegally preserve perishable food items like fish and fruits.
In Hong Kong, the Centre for Food Safety has regularly found formaldehyde (170-570 ppm) in noodlefish. (In Hong Kong the use of formaldehyde in food is liable to a fine of HK$50,000 and imprisonment for 6 months.) If you look at the net, Sri Lanka fish buyers are aware that fish is dipped in formalin and food colouring before being transported from the fish ports to the inland markets .
In Malaysia information from the government say that imported fish e.g. cod/salmon/fin/tuna have formalin in them.
So widespread is this practice in Bangladesh that a Formalin Testing Centre has been set up to train administrators. Bangladesh’s Institute of Food Science and Technology has invented a Formalin Test kit and has a Formalin Test Center (FTC) situated at Kawran Bazar fish market.The group found 100% of vermicelli and citrus fruit, 95% of grapes, 91% of bananas and 90% of noodles were contaminated with formalin and other harmful chemical preservatives, as well as 82% of mangoes, 77% of dates, 75% of tomatoes, 60% of eggplant, 59% of apples and 20% of cucumbers .
In Bangladesh, the Pure Food Ordinance, 1959 and the Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009 prohibit putting chemicals in foods. The Commerce Ministry tagged conditions for formalin import, asking buyers to submit a detailed account of how they want use it. In the 2011-12 fiscal year (July to June), traders imported over 205,000kg of formalin, but the quantity slumped to just over 44,300kg between July 2012 and March .
It’s a bleak future
The realization that we use harmful chemicals in almost everything we do, eat and use, is as shocking as it is true. It makes ones think of how we have socialized ourselves into not thinking about health issues holistically. What is it that makes us blind to the use of harmful chemicals in our food, water and air? The poor millions, it seems have no choice. For them it is either starvation or contaminated food, if food is available. Many of the ‘more aware’ act as if nothing can be done like my young friend who opened up the question for me. And people like me somehow consciously keep these messages and try to access the right category of food – organic, less chemically treated but at a price tag. So, what can we do?