Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, October 23, 2008

By E.R.Ronny and Sadia Islam

Death is a big deal. So much so that that it asks for capital letters. Contrary to some beliefs, death cannot be cheated by cosmetic surgery. Temporarily fooled perhaps but never completely cheated.

Death, or rather, DEATH, used to be broadly divided into two categories. There was 'natural death' where you got old and passed away or choked on a hastily swallowed boiled egg. And then there was 'unnatural death' where someone shoved that boiled egg down your throat to choke you. But these days we have to deal with 'ridiculous death'. It happens despite all that you do to prolong your life after birth. It has gotten to the stage that people are thinking of DEATH all the time.

Milky white confusion
Current events regarding milk is a case in point. Sanlu, China's biggest milk powder producer recalled 700 tons of milk powder after inspectors found the industrial contaminant, melamine, in some of its packages. It has sickened at least 1,200 babies across the country and killed at least two so far.

Melamine is better known as a compound used to make plates and spoons that can be used defensively during a food fight. It is tough enough to act as a blunt object of death. What makes it so bad is that in some tests used to determine the nutritional value of a foodstuff, melamine shows up as a protein. So manufacturers use the compound to make their products appear more nutritious (1).

When ingested, melamine passes out the urinary tract in small quantities, but it can accumulate in crystals creating a blockage. Babies don't have kidneys that can withstand so much abuse.

BSTI scientists said presence of up to 0.001mg of melamine per gram milk consumed would be considered safe for children. For adults, this would be 0.0025mg per gram milk.

8 brands of milk have been tested by BSTI (Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution) and Dhaka University chemistry lab. A private laboratory, Plasma Plus, also carried out tests on samples of some of the branded powdered milk and found the toxic element in only one brand namely Yashili. Confused? We are.

Director General of BSTI, Azmal Hossain told The Daily Star, "The presence of harmful melamine in Yashili milk formula has been found according to the report by Plasma Plus. The amount of melamine present is 72.77 milligram per kg of milk"

Three of the brands were imported from China while the rest came from Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. Last month Bangladesh stopped importing products containing milk powder from China, where the deaths of four babies are blamed on melamine in dairy goods (2).

Plasma Plus in a press release said that the BSTI provided it with four coded samples of powdered milk without their brand names for tests to detect melamine. It claimed that it never gave test reports on any particular brand. The BSTI itself is confused about which result to rely on (3). And that leaves everyone else confused as to what to do.

The cows are innocent
But there is a way to feed the children and that is to get milk straight from the cow if the cow is willing. Of course, it only helps if you can see the cow while it is delivering the milk. Cows being the honest creatures they are, do not tamper with food. But their handlers have been known to add formalin to the milk to make it appear whiter and preserve it for longer.

Thirty-five milk traders at Rathkhola in Old Town of Dhaka last year were caught by a mobile court for selling tainted milk. Intake of formalin treated-milk or adulterated or artificial milk, may lead to food poisoning, jaundice and typhoid, said Professor Kabirul Islam of the Department Paediatrics at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (4).

Fishy looks
But that's not the only thing that escapes formalin. 80,000kg formalin fish enter country every day. What it does is provide a surprisingly rosy glow to fishes that make them look fresh and well rested.

Neither the Department of Fisheries nor the Directorate of Health, not even the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) has any policy for import of fish (5). Although, fisheries department strictly controls the quality of the fishes they export. So the only way to have good fish of our own country is to go abroad.

Cutthroat surgeons
Of course, all this makes us ill. But then we need to go to doctors who send us to diagnostic labs to test for diseases even they cannot pronounce.

Magistrate Fasiullah last year raided Lalbagh Pathology at Lalbagh in the Old Town a year ago and found it running without skilled technicians (6). The x-ray room was not arranged properly and its radiological effect was coming outside. In real life, radiation never allows anyone to gain superpowers.

Anything but water
All this daily battle with death becomes tiring but you cannot even take a break to take a drink. Bottled mineral water isn't exactly rich in minerals. In 2005 the Consumers Association of Bangladesh (CAB) revealed that seven mineral water brands, although qualified as drinking water, did not have the elements to qualify it to be called 'mineral water'.

Fruit juices hardly contain fruit content. Many of the country's popular brands still do not meet not meet the minimum standards set by BSTI. Real fruits on the other hand are ripened using Calcium Carbide, an extremely hazardous chemical containing traces of arsenic and phosphorous, which the wholesalers obtain from places like Dhaka Medical College Hospital and Mitford Hospital. Next time your child starts chewing on those decorative wax fruits on your coffee table, you might as well not bother.

Pretty colours
We are predominantly rice-eating people. Yet, even the abundant rice is sometimes whitened with chemical fertiliser urea and later polished with candle wax to give it an attractive glaze.

Spices like chilli powder are mixed with brick dust. Oil used to fry food at restaurants are stored and reused the following day, which becomes toxic. Recently a mobile team raided

some well known shops that sell sweets only to find they were using date expired milk powder.

Too good to be true
What looks too good just may not be so. In fact, some things may not even be what they pretend to be. Yet we carry on. We eat things with a question mark hovering above our heads. Couple of things could happen. We could evolve into superhuman beings that can survive on anything chewable and drinkable.
Or not.

Nothing is sure. Nothing except that death happens, eventually. Let's hope we can be more aware and delay it just that much further.

(2) BBC.com, Friday, 17 October 2008
(3) The Daily Star, October 18, 2008
(4) New Age July 12, 2007
(5) March2, 2007
(6) New Age July 12, 2007



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