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Poisoning ourselves: cooking with polythene, putting camphor in drinking water!

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari

There is plenty of food safety and general health advice around, notably in Ghana’s electronic media, but are people using the information.

I wonder!

A recent worrying, personal experience with ordinary polythene and a corn/maize food, known as etsew in Fante language, coupled with some alarming research findings about camphor balls, underscores the need for concern.

Returning to Accra after a visit to the Central Region, at the well-known Winneba Junction, I eagerly looked for, and bought, some Fante kenkey and etsew. The Central Region is famed for both and I was really looking forward to tasting their specialities, particularly the etsew – a type of banku or corn meal dumpling, similar to kenkey.

Although eating corn products upsets my stomach, compelling me to reluctantly avoid them, every now and then I get a longing for their taste and dare to disobey my stomach - but only with the aid of some dietary tablets!

Unfortunately, I was in for a big disappointment. After I had heated the first of the etsew pack and peeled off the plantain leaves wrapped around it, I saw to my dismay that it had first been wrapped in polythene before the leaves. This is a clear disregard of the long-standing advice from food safety experts that cooking with polythene is unsafe, even life-threatening; poisoning.

Their warning is that when food is cooked, or heated in polythene, the high temperature results in poisonous polythene chemicals leaking into it, thus endangering health.

So, without taking even a bite, I threw away the whole lot. Better be safe than sorry, as the saying goes.

Before the advent of the now ubiquitous polythene, kenkey and etsew makers used only plantain leaves. Why now the need for polythene? A friend offered this explanation: “It’s for economic reasons. The polythene keeps all the raw kenkey intact. Without it, there’s seepage and a reduction in volume of each ball of kenkey.”

But then, what about the health of their unsuspecting customers?

Furthermore, an article in the Ghanaian Times of February 14, quoted a dietician as giving a forceful caution about the danger of using polythene in cookery. Prime Baidoo, Principal Dietician of the Tema General Hospital said using polythene in cooking, to retain steam and heat is dangerous. This could cause cancer and even infertility, he said.

Mr Baidoo explained that when polythene is heated, it releases ‘Bisphenol A’, which when consumed can cause cancer.

Also troubling, he stressed, is the common practice of vendors serving hot foods like porridge in polythene sachets.
Still, despite my etsew frustration, fortunately the Winneba kenkey fully lived up to the area’s reputation, so I had some consolation.

The polythene scare apart, camphor balls, too, made headlines earlier this month. Disturbing research findings by some scientists at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), underscored health threats from camphor usage, and in the most unexpected quarters.

As reported by JoyOnline, “a study carried out by KNUST scientists has revealed that consumers of street vended fufu and fried rice may be suffering from ailments caused by the presence of camphor in their food ….”

Camphor, also known as ‘mothballs’, is a pesticide and household air freshener.

“Research found dangerous levels of camphor in these foods” as camphor contains a chemical called Naphthalene.”

According to “a case study published in the journal of Pan African Medicine, Naphthalene can cause acute kidney injury.” High levels of camphor were found in some of the commercial food samples.

“The researchers explained that … stored water containing moth balls (is) used for all cooking and vending processes such as boiling of rice for fried rice or storage of excess cassava used for fufu. It is also used in soup preparation.”

Lead scientist Dr Gloria Mathanda Ankar-Brewoo of the KNUST Department of Food Science and Nutrition, reportedly advised that “eliminating the use of camphor and finding alternative means of storing water would greatly reduce the health risk associated with these street vended meals.”

Thus the issue is, how are those engaged in the preparation of street and convenience foods to get constant schooling that the food they are selling the public could be poisonous?

Furthermore, what happens to research findings, such as these from the KNUST? And what about general food safety advice published in the media? Who ensures that the public get the benefit of those?

According to the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA), Naphthalene balls are classified as household chemical substances for repelling insects.

Yet, the Authority said in a statement that it had come to their notice “that some sections of the public use Naphthalene/mothballs to purify drinking water, and for the treatment of stomach aches, measles, and diarrhoea.

“These forms of usage other than repelling insects may cause serious harm to the users and therefore the public is strongly advised to desist from that.

“Indeed, research has shown that incorrect use of Naphthalene balls can have severe health consequences on consumers ….

“Other regulatory interventions such as the recent introduction of the Street Food Vending Permit initiative intended to closely monitor the preparation, packaging and storage of street foods are being enforced,” the Authority stated.

My concern is: although laudable, does the Street Food Vending Permit scheme guarantee the continuous education of kenkey makers at Winneba Junction and the like?

Anyway, it seems to me that the FDA can’t tackle the food safety teaching alone. There needs to be a collaboration with other stakeholders, notably the local assemblies to ensure a perpetual food safety campaign.
I think that the assemblies could make use of their local F M radio stations for public education in such matters. As there are FM radio stations in practically every district, the assemblies could partner with them in such community welfare endeavours.

Additionally, certainly the recommendations of our scientists need to be put to constructive use.

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