Vol. 4 Num 302 Sun. April 04, 2004  
Star City

Toxic chemicals in fruits, vegetables
Public health at great risk

Some farmers and traders use ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical, excessively to ripen fruits and some vegetables, putting public health at great risk.

Fruits ripened by excessive dose of ethylene oxide can cause various illnesses, doctors and scientists at the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) of Bangladesh Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (BCSIR) said.

They also said most fruits in the market are coated with a thick layer of insecticide and pesticide, as during their growing, maturing and marketing these chemicals are sprayed many times.

"Just by physically verifying the fruit one can see its toxicity ... the fruit looks either pale or very bright with the flavour missing," said a scientist at the IFST.

IFST scientists also said in most cases, farmers and traders, who use ethylene oxide to ripen fruits and some vegetables for quick money, do not know how to scientifically use the chemical, which all the more increases health risks.

They also said most papayas, guavas, melons, mangoes, tomatoes, sapota, pineapple, locally-produced dates and many other fruits available in the markets are ripened by excessive doses of ethylene oxide.

"We have warned the food ministry about the indiscriminate use of this chemical in our food chain but nothing has been done to prevent the practice," said a scientist at the IFST on condition of anonymity.

"When tomatoes are green they cost Tk 3 a kilogram. If the same tomato is ripened in a day the farmer can earn twice as much," said an agriculturist at Khamarbari in the city.

Another scientist at the Public Health Laboratory (PHL) under Dhaka City Corporation said they do not know how to deal with this new phenomenon as the 'primitive' pure food ordinance has no mention of these new adulterating chemicals.

Food Minister Abdullah Al Noman said the matter has just come to his notice. He said the agriculture ministry with their network of block supervisors around the country should help sensitise the farmers and traders about the health risks.

"Since you have told me, I will also see what measures we can take to stop the practice of using ethylene oxide in our food chain," the minister said.

Agriculture Minister MK Anwar said after the media highlighted the practice, his ministry conducted a survey which found the chemical was used to ripen fruits and some vegetables.

He said ethylene oxide is used commercially all over the world to ripen fruits but the user should know how much they should use so as not to endanger public safety.

"We have asked Bangladesh Agriculture Research Council to look into the matter and if it was found that excessive doses are used, we will start training our block supervisors to disseminate the know-how among farmers," Anwar said.