The mounting evidence of heavy metals and other toxins entering the food chain and accumulating in human bodies brought attention to the authorities’ continued apathy towards the growing food hazards in Bangladesh.
Food and health experts said that public health faced its biggest threat from what should have been a life-sustaining action – eating – because authorities allowed foods to turn toxic in exchange for urbanisation and industrialisation.
Public and independent researchers have repeatedly found evidence of widespread pollution in the air, water, and soil, frequently with heavy metals like lead, chromium, cadmium, and arsenic, industrial chemical waste, pollutants emitted by burning fossil fuels, and agricultural inputs – often found in foods beyond permissible limits, from staple rice to drinking water to cow milk.
Instead of comprehensively assessing the threat of food safety hazards, especially to people belonging to different age groups and with varying health conditions, food experts alleged that authorities had repeatedly dismissed findings from scientific studies, labelling independent researchers as agents of foreign food companies.
‘The government must appreciate researchers and their findings rather than chasing them for exposing uneatable foods,’ said Romen Raihan, a food safety researcher, who teaches Public Health and Informatics at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University.
Romen’s comment came on the heels of the media witch-hunt targeting one of the researchers, who revealed in a study in August that all of their studied 80 brinjals contained lead and that cadmium was also detected in 40 per cent of the samples at levels several hundred times higher than what is permissible for oral ingestion of the vegetable by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Three journalists in a television talk show accused the researcher, who teaches Agricultural Chemistry at the Bangladesh Agricultural University, of endangering farmers’ livelihoods through his study, opining that the research constituted ‘criminal offence’.
The study, published in the Scientific Reports journal, concluded that impurities present in the brinjal put its consumers at higher cancer risk and that the impurities were passed from soil polluted with lead, zinc, cadmium, nickel, and copper.
The three talk-show participants even saw an ulterior motive in the researcher picking up brinjal for his study and no other crops or vegetables.
In 2019, a social media campaign was launched against an independent researcher at Dhaka University after he made public the presence of multiple antibiotics in prominent brands of pasteurised milk.
The social media campaign, mainly run by government officers responsible for looking after food standards and safety, accused the researcher of being an agent of international dairy companies.
The DU researcher, who teaches Pharmaceutical Technology and is known as a food safety advocate, was never heard again.
Several other researchers – all public university teachers – said that they had never published their findings on rice and soil impurities, fearing backlash from the government.
‘The government must protect researchers and create an atmosphere where food safety hazards are freely discussed,’ said Romen Raihan.
Romen recently revealed, following a study, that fizzy drinks are contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and chromium at a higher level than the allowable limit recommended by WHO and Codex Alimentarius Commission.
The study, published in March in Fortune Journals, a food science and nutrition journal, said that metallic impurities such as lead and chromium in the water used for manufacturing the fizzy drinks might damage the brain and nervous system, as well as increase the risk of high blood pressure, uremia, ultimately leading to death.
‘Heavy metal mixed in water is the most dangerous form of all food impurities,’ said Mokhlesur Rahman, an Agricultural Chemistry professor at BAU.
Heavy metals are regularly detected in canned fruit juice and soft drinks, not only in those marketed domestically but also in those exported.
In 2015, following laboratory tests, the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research found that fruit juices sold in cans contained high concentrations of heavy metal aluminium residues alongside excessive sugar and the preservative sodium benzoate.
Food experts link the growing prevalence of non-communicable diseases in Bangladesh largely to unsafe foods, with NCDs accounting for 70 per cent of all deaths.
UK-based academic journal The Lancet revealed in May that deaths from modern pollution risk factors such as ambient air pollution and toxic chemical pollution have gone up by 7 per cent since 2015 and by more than 66 per cent since 2000 globally.
‘Urgent attention is needed to control pollution and prevent pollution-related disease, with an emphasis on air pollution and lead poisoning, and a stronger focus on hazardous chemical pollution,’ said the Lancet.
A review of 75 scientific papers published on pollution and food safety in Bangladesh revealed in 2021 that hundred per cent of vegetables and 70 per cent of fish samples examined were lead poisoned.
The review published in September 2021 in the US-based Journal of Health and Pollution revealed that lead contamination was also found in cereals, chicken, duck eggs, cow milk and a host of other foods, adding that Bangladesh is exposed to almost all pathways of lead contamination.
The Lancet report revealed that children in Bangladesh had one of the most dangerous blood lead levels in the world in 2019 – 15 micrograms per deciliter, far above the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reference level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.
Even these overwhelming volumes of evidence failed to generate a comprehensive effort to determine the extent of soil, air and water pollution.
‘We lack the capacity to undertake a massive task,’ said environment, forest and climate change secretary Farhina Ahmed, adding that testing laboratories and machinery were being imported and set up.
Food secretary Ismiel Hossain said that ensuring food safety was a combined responsibility and that they were working on it.
Agriculture minister Muhammad Abdur Razzaque avoided answering questions asked about his plans for getting rid of impurities in foods.
‘We are working,’ he said.
There are many ways of reducing environmental pollution, according to Abu Hena Md. Zulfiquar Ali, a professor at the soil, water and environment department, Dhaka University.
‘Nature is self-sustaining,’ he said, adding that checking pollution sources could help reduce food toxicity over time.
There are also many ways of removing heavy metals accumulated in the body, said Mohammad Gulzarul Aziz, who teaches food technology at BAU.