By OGE OKAFOR
Imagine driving through a busy area like Ikeja, Iyana Ipaja or any other place in Lagos, when suddenly, your gaze falls upon a table laden with enticing and assorted fruits like banana, mango, apple and pineapple, displayed for sale by a fruits vendor.
Without thinking twice, you stop in front of the fruit seller to buy some even when other motorists are honking to let you know you are causing traffic jam by that singular act.
Then, as you are about to dig into the pulpy fruit, a strange feeling held you back. Thank your stars because you may have just been saved from a sure-shot ticket to the hospital; your family too!
Some of these fruits that are currently being sold in every nook and corner of the city have been artificially (forced to) ripened using harmful chemicals. Their consumption causes several harmful effects, including neurological disorders.
Ripening, according to Wikipedia, is a metabolic process in fruits that causes them to become more palatable. In general, a fruit becomes sweeter, less green and softer as it ripens and this occurs naturally. Fruits like avocado, banana, guava, mango, papaya, and pear are among fruits that ripen after picking. Ripening is the final stage of maturation process in fruits when they change colour, soften and develop flavour, texture and aroma. Ripening agents speed up the ripening process.
According to Funmi Oladunmoye of the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, “These traders use different chemicals, ripening agents, to speed up the ripening process”
Mrs Precious Akpan, a fruit seller stated that she doesn’t indulge in such activities, however, acknowledged that she heard about the use of carbide to make fruits ripen.
Meanwhile, Dr Gabriel Omonaiye, a family physician, corroborated what Oladunmoye said, adding that calcium carbide is the ripening agent commonly used.
In like manner, unsuspecting consumers go to the market to purchase grains from foodstuff sellers not knowing that such grains have been laced with harmful chemicals that are carcinogenic (cancer-inducing) in nature.
According to an agriculturist, Godwin Okonkwo, chemicals are used to preserve grains such as maize, beans, millet and the rest. “The reason for using chemicals to preserve grains is to prevent weevils from infesting and destroying the grains”
“Grains can keep for as long as possible if there are no weevils eating them up but if the weevils find their way into these grains, they will destroy the grains before getting to humans for consumption” he adds.
Oladunmoye supports this claim and adds that the chemical commonly used to preserve grains from rodents (rats) is phosphine.
Normal versus artificial ripening process
Usually, fruits produce ethylene gas that hastens ripening that is why unripe fruits are enclosed in a paper bag to hasten ripening. However, most fruit dealers and traders engage in the habit of forcing fruits to ripe prematurely by applying chemical substances like carbide. That is why fruits being sold in the markets now can’t produce ethylene as they have been plucked prematurely (before maturity).
What these traders do is that they apply water to the carbide, which produces a gas called acetylene. The reaction also produces other chemical like arsenic and phosphorus aside acetylene. Ideally, carbide is used for the production of fertilizers (calcium carbanamide) and in the steel industry (for welding) as well as carbide lamp.
Motive behind fruit sellers’ act
Mrs Akpan, while acknowledging the wide practice of forcing fruits to ripen, explained why some traders do it.
“The reason behind such indulgence is the quest to make (more) money on a daily basis because of the demand from customers who patronize them. Because they are strategically located, driven by the desire to constantly make money and satisfy demand, they are tempted to hasten the ripening process of such fruits”.
Health dangers of eating such poisoned fruits
Oladunmoye says consuming such fruits and grains is dangerous to the consumer when the residual chemical level surpasses the permitted level and becomes harmful to humans.
‘There is a safe level for these chemicals that is permitted; these standards have been stipulated by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON). This varies depending on the particular chemical being used. The residual value of those chemicals used, if not higher than the permitted level, then such chemicals will not affect humans in a bad way’.
Depending on the particular chemical used, some are so lethal that it can kill. For example, phosphine is used to preserve grains from being destroyed by rodents (rats). It is in fact, the best chemical to store grains from rodents but it depends on how careful these traders use them. When the rats eat this chemical, the stomach swells and the rat dies. Now imagine what the effect will be on humans, lethal is the word.
On the other hand, Omonaiye says the reaction of the chemical (carbide) with water produces other chemicals like arsenic, phosphorus and acetylene, which could affect a number of systems in the body. The health effect could either be short or long term.
Short term: On the skin, it causes skin rashes.
On the gastrointestinal system, the individual may stool frequently and also have sore in the mouth. There could also be gastric complications.
It could affect the cardiovascular system causing some heart problems.
On the central nervous system (CNS), it can cause dizziness, headache, confusion, unsteady gaze and excessive sleeping.
For obstetric part, this has to do with reproduction. For some women, it could trigger abortion. It can also cause congenital anomaly.
It is believed that in some people, it could damage the liver.
On the long term basis, it could induce cancer formation. In some other instances, complication of the nervous system, liver and central nervous system could result. Again, it depends on the quantity and how often the individual uses the fruits that are ripened with carbide, Omonaiye explained.
How to detect and avoid fruits ripened with calcium carbide
According to Akpan, there are distinguishing features between fruits that ripen normally and those forced to ripen.
For one, such fruits are sold very cheap against the normal fruits. Traders sell cheaply to ensure that they can sell it off and go for another stock, without running at a loss.
“When you purchase such fruits, the taste is different and repulsive; it hurts the mouth and stomach and could cause diaorrhea. The fruit doesn’t last long before rotting if it is not consumed immediately. I don’t do so because my children apart from my customers eat the banana I sell. It is not good for the body; merely perceiving the odour of the chemical is repulsive talk of using it on edibles,” Akpan.
“Artificially ripened fruit can be identified by their lack of uniform colour. This is because the chemical used to treat has not reached the entire fruit. The flesh will also not be fully ripe inside, it does not taste sweet. The artificially ripened fruit will be dry and less juicy and without the sweet aroma that comes with the natural fruit,” she said.
Before you start eating, do this:
The best way for traders to store their grains from rodents is with use of phosphine but there are safe and good ways it can be used to store grains. Oladunmoye profers solution by saying that the chemical should not have direct contact with the grains; it should be enclosed in paper bag or nylon.
Secondly, before consuming these grains, it should be well washed. That is why it is said that if you are buying grains like beans, maize etc that have been exposed to the air (atmosphere), some of these chemicals would have evaporated and gone into the air.
By washing well and soaking in water, the effect will not be felt much. Some people are in the habit of eating rice without washing when they see it clean; this is dangerous because the chemical phosphine used to prevent weevils’ infestation could be lethal.
Again, it is advisable to wash all fruits before consuming; some go to the extent of washing with hot water. Use salt to wash the surface of fruits before consumption.
For plantain, it is always advisable to rinse the plantain and knife before cutting. Some people just take the plantain and start peeling, if the knife touches the surface of the infected plantain; it goes into the plantain itself because the knife has been used to cut the infected surface, which is not good for consumers.