Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Unpalatable Truth About How Lead Got Into 'Noodles'

It’s not just Nestlé's Maggi noodles that’s been found to have high levels of lead across the country. Tamil Nadu has banned Wai Wai, Smith And Jones And Reliance Select Noodles for the same reason. So how did the dangerous lead get into our noodles in the first place?

Biochemist Thuppil Venkatesh, professor emeritus at St John's Medical College, Bangalore, has been researching lead contamination and related food safety issues for the last 30 years. He is also the national chair of Indian Society for Lead Awareness and Research (InSLAR). What he has to say is scary.

“The half life of lead in soft tissue is 90 days. Once it goes into bones, it stays for 30-35 years. It bioaccumulates, and has no beneficial role. Lead only inhibits biological processes.” he said. The gist of his finding is: it’s in everything else too. High quantities of lead have been found by researchers in chocolates, milk, fish, and drinking water.

And lead poisoning is only one of the concerns. Bio safety standards in India have an abysmal record. Health minister J.P. Nadda told Parliament in December that 20% of the random samples (13,571 out of 72,000) collected and tested by the Food Safety Standards Authority of India during 2013-14 did not conform to standards. The agency has not disclosed the details of the tests. So we don't know which kind of adulteration is the most common.

Maggi has basically three components -- the white noodle block, the spice powder which comes in a sachet and the covering package. Dr. Venkatesh reckons lead contamination could occur through multiple sources.

“The plastic is not manufactured by Maggi. It’s made by somebody else, and Nestlé uses that. The quality of the plastic also matters. The spices, the masala, it has colouring agents. One of them may be having lead. The machinery could also be a potential contaminant, as could the water used to wash the flour,” he said.

Lead gets into our environment through three primary means: illegal recycling of lead batteries, rituals such as immersing painted idols in rivers and lakes, and degraded plumbing materials. Another source of environmental contamination, leaded fuel, was banned in India in 2000. Out of these, lead paints, due to poor regulation and enforcement in India, remain one of the biggest source of environmental contamination, as there are no mandatory standards.

According to World Health Organisation, human exposure to lead through water increases due to degraded plumbing in old buildings. It can disrupt nervous and reproductive systems, the kidneys, and it can cause high blood pressure and anaemia.

Lead is extremely harmful to developing foetuses, pregnant mothers and kids, with high blood lead levels causing learning disabilities, behavioural problems, and mental retardation. "In children, during their growth and development phase, it accumulates in their brain and neurological system. It brings about lead-induced encephalopathy. It also brings about other cognitive changes, most notably, a reduction in IQ," Dr. Venkatesh said.

Other heavy elements that find their way into our food system and our bodies are mercury, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic. Heavy elements bioaccumulate, which means that our body is unable to metabolise or excrete them once they enter our body.

Vegetables grown in semi-urban areas that use waste water for irrigation are found to have high levels of lead and cadmium, which is a carcinogen with toxic effects on the kidney, skeletal and respiratory systems.

A study carried out by researchers from the University of Sussex and Toxics Link, a Delhi-based environmental NGO, and the Benaras Hindu University from 2003-2007, established an "unambiguous relationship between heavy metals contamination in food crops and its source in wastewater from industries, treatment plants, and municipal and domestic sources."

Dr. Venkatesh suggested a three-step solution to the contamination problem. He says he has written to the government with the suggestion.

“Whenever brands advertise their produce in news media, they should disclose a batch number. For that batch, they should have a test certificate readily available in the industry.” he said. “They can do the testing in an in-house laboratory, but 10 percent of what they test must be tested outside in a third-party accredited laboratory. This test certificate should be available on demand, for a nominal fee. The right to information act should be applicable here,” he added.

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