Published: Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Agrochemical products and health hazards

ACCORDING to BBC news (December 13, 2013), the “UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been blamed for the spread of a kidney disease which affected nearly half a million people in Sri Lanka. Scientists believe the illness is caused by pesticides and fertilizers. The FAO is accused by campaigners of encouraging the use of agrochemicals on behalf of multinational companies.” An FAO official, however, denied the charges.
A recent study by Sri Lankan and foreign scientists concluded that “excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers using toxic metals – cadmium and arsenic – was the main cause.” Cadmium, if ingested with food, accumulates in kidneys where it damages filtering mechanisms. It is reported that the Sri Lankan government has already banned three major imported agrochemical products.
According to the National Institute of Kidney Diseases, there are nearly 20 million people suffering from various kidney and urological problems in Bangladesh and every year 15-20 thousand patients develop acute renal failure. In Bangladesh, pesticides and fertilizers are being used indiscriminately. We should investigate the causes of high prevalence of kidney diseases in Bangladesh and immediately stop the use of the pesticides and fertilizers which have been banned in Sri Lanka.
Arsenic in ground water is already a major health concern in our country. We have the highest percentage of arsenic contaminated shallow tube wells and estimated 30 million people use water from those wells for domestic purposes. Arsenic has already entered our food chain through use of arsenic contaminated water for cultivation of rice in some regions. Nearly 40,000 people with skin diseases caused by arsenic ingestion have been identified in Bangladesh.
Our markets are flooded with calcium carbide and formalin treated food items. Calcium carbide is used as a ripening agent and formalin as a preservative. Formalin is toxic, allergenic and carcinogenic. If ingested, 30 mL of formalin containing 37% of formaldehyde can cause death to an adult human. If inhaled at concentrations above 0.1 ppm, formaldehyde can cause eye and nasal irritations, headache, difficulty in breathing and asthma. Industrial grade calcium carbide contains arsenic and phosphorous which are harmful to human health. Calcium carbide can cause both cancer and neurological disorders.
The data on kidney diseases in Bangladesh indicates that it is already a major killer disease. Unless we stop the use or misuse of harmful agrochemical products, calcium carbide and formalin, the crisis is likely to intensify further involving other forms of diseases and soon turn into a catastrophe.

The writer is a former chief engineer of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.