It’s in the water we drink and in the air we breathe. It’s in our child’s favourite toy and in the paint we lovingly put on our walls. It’s in the folk medicines we take as a panacea for all ills and the kajal we use to ward off the evil eye. Horror of horrors it’s also in a popular snack!
The recent ruckus around the presence of lead in Maggi noodles is much ado about……..well, something. I am not condoning the act and the company should be made to pay for flouting product guidelines but it will be a lost opportunity if we do not delve a little deeper. Not in the direction of the stars who promoted the brand because if we were to jail people on the basis of false claims and promises there wouldn’t be many left in our parliament . So let me suggest a different path, a path less traveled
While most people have been busy playing the blame game I would like to introduce you to the enemy. Lead occurs naturally in the earth’s crust and is non biodegradable. It persists in the soil, in the air, in drinking water, and in homes and can poison generations of children and adults unless properly removed. When ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through skin it is highly toxic. Its toxicity has been known for thousands of years and Greek physicians were the first to describe it in the first century B.C. Prolonged exposure at low levels causes reductions in IQ and attention span, reading and learning disabilities, hyperactivity, impaired growth, behavioural problems, and hearing loss in children. These effects are long-term and may be irreversible. At high levels, lead poisoning causes coma, convulsions and even death.
The following sources of lead exposure have been identified worldwide but I am limiting myself to the conditions prevailing in our country.
1. Gasoline Additives
Removing lead from petrol was the easiest step in lowering community lead exposure but our government was slow in implementing it . New Delhi phased out leaded petrol about a decade ago and although the levels in air have decreased the levels of the toxic metal in the blood of the capital’s children are still more than 10 times higher than those of children growing up in the US. This points to other sources of contamination including soil and dust lead which is the result of use of leaded petrol in the not so distant past.
2. Soldered Food cans and Tinned Utensils
The potential for passing lead into food through soldered cans may be dismissed as a western problem. But the practice of using a lead tin alloy (kalai) to coat the inside of copper utensils is a wide spread Indian practice and is equally dangerous. Also dangerous is the practice of wrapping foodstuffs in newspaper. Lead is present in printing inks and ‘typemetals’. Further alarming is the common processes of grinding spices and grains , there are numerous opportunities for the incorporation of lead in food due to the wear of machinery bushings, brass fittings and tinned metal surfaces.
3. Lead based Paints
Paint lead exposure has been studied the least however some indication can be given by the fact that 10% of lead consumed in India is used in paint. Lead chromate paints are widely available and are not marked for appropriate use. Of 24 paints analysed by JBS Environmental Services and Technologies of Sydney thirteen had Pb concentrations in excess of 1% by weight and five had more than 10%. With no way to implement and monitor checks in small domestic units lead based paint is being used with impunity on toys and decorative items.
4. Drinking Water Systems
We all know that lead is present in our water the only question we dare ask is how much? Significant exposures result from uncontrolled industrial emissions from lead smelters and battery recycling plants which end up in our ground water after seepage. Other unsettling areas are the cottage industry hot-spots silversmiths, print shops, brass works and radiator repair workshop. Lead in vessels and pipes used for drinking water storage are also a matter of concern.
5. Folk Medicines and Cosmetics
The usage of ‘folk medicines’ is widespread in our country. The abysmal state of India’s consumer protection laws means the absence of implementation of poison regulations and appropriate labelling and descriptions . This exposes unsuspecting people to the dangers of heavy metal poisoning. Vaids and believers of traditional medicine will disagree and point out, correctly, that the ancients knew lead, mercury and arsenic were deadly. They will aver that Ayurveda purifies these materials and removes their toxicity through a process called sodhana .The truth is that there is no credible evidence to prove this claim. Our government has been hesitant to take on tradition, but lead poisoning through Ayurvedic medication is a well-documented phenomenon outside India . Apart from this there are more idiosyncratic lead poisoning sources like cosmetics, namely eye -liner or its rural equivalent kajal.
If you are still not scared then read on. This is an issue of some sensitivity. Cows foraging on roadsides carry the risk of passing on lead in their milk but more information connecting the two is awaited. A study conducted in Kolkata investigated the magnitude of heavy metal contamination in fruits and vegetables and highlights the increased danger of consuming fresh fruits and vegetables. The soil samples where this vegetables grew did not show heavy metals excess which means that contamination was mainly due to automobile and industrial exhaust. Vehicle sump oil containing lead is commonly used for starting cooking fires and is a dangerous practice which continues unabated. Lead has long been used as an adulterant or weighting agent in foods and other goods. One tragic case of lead poisoning includes the adulteration of ice-cream with white lead.
And now the answer to two of your questions why now ? and why?
I agree that this essay is a delayed response, that I have posted it much after the storm came and blew over. In my defence let me just say that I have gorged on countless packets of Maggi noodles in my youth. With the amount of lead I have consumed you should be amazed that I can say anything coherent at all . As to why I have posted it, it’s not to scare you. On the contrary, it’s to un-scare you! My plea is that with so much lead already inside and around you what harm could a little more do. So go right ahead and eat that two minutes wonder you’ve been craving for. In any case burning 50 million dollars worth of it when street kids scavenge garbage dumps for something edible doesn’t make much sense.