Laboratory tests sponsored by The Nation on some samples of fufu paste bought at selected markets in Ogun State reveals the presence of toxic chlorine and detergents, KUNLE AKINRINADE reports.
Fufu, a popular Nigerian delicacy, is white in colour. But as immaculate as they appear, laboratory analysis carried out on samples of the delicacy obtained from processing and sales centres in Ifo and Arigbajo local government areas of Ogun State reveal harmful chlorine residual and detergents that are toxic to the belly of consumers.
Incidentally, retailers from cities like Lagos rely on the contaminated, wet, starchy staple from these local production centres, which they turn into edible balls and sell to consumers.
People like 43-year-old Lagos-based marketing communication practitioner, Femi Adenaike, relish the delicacy together with Okro soup, oblivious of its consequences for human health.
“It does not matter whether the fufu paste is white or it is produced in the most hygienic environment. As long as they are processed with harmful substances, especially bleach, which has higher degree of free chlorine and detergents, they become contaminated, poisonous and dangerous to human health,” warns Majemite Lawrence, a medical doctor that runs Hope Alive Hospital in Abule Egba area of Lagos State.
The laboratory tests were a follow-up to The Nation’s investigative report on the unwholesome practice by operators at processing centres at Ifo and Arigbajo, who use bleach with free chlorine as active agents, detergents and potash to process cassava into fufu paste as was published on June 22, 2019.
The wet fufu pastes are usually stored in 25 kg or 50 kg sacks and sold at different markets in the two communities to unsuspecting retailers who turn them into fufu balls and sell to unsuspecting consumers.
Worrisome results of laboratory analysis
Fufu consumers like Adenaike may need to exercise caution as The Nation investigation revealed worrisome truths about three samples of the staple obtained from three popular markets in Ogun State, which has become the hub of sellers of fufu paste in recent times. Laboratory tests sponsored by The Nation were conducted at a research facility approved by the Institute of Public Analysts (ITPAN), the Scientific Laboratory Services, Surulere, Lagos.
The physicochemical and microbiological tests conducted on samples of fufu paste between September and October revealed the presence of chlorine and detergents in the selected fufu samples. The foregoing are in addition to the presence of cyanide, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, lead, nickel and iron whose quantities the tests mercifully revealed were still within tolerable industrial limit.
Most worrisome was the fact that one of the three samples of fufu paste presented for tests had residual chlorine value of 6 milligrams, while the two other samples had 1 milligram of chlorine level each. The result also revealed the presence of one percent of detergent in all the three samples.
The three samples presented for tests, certified by a public analyst and resident chemist of the laboratory, Mr Akinwunmi Onafalujo, were labelled Specimen 1, 2 and 3. They were bought at Arigbajo Market. Of the three, the one from Arigbajo Market, Ewekoro Local Government Area, contained 6 milligrams of free chlorine, while the two other samples from Ifo Market and the Fufu Market in Ifo Local Government Area revealed the presence of one milligram of chlorine each.
The maximum chlorine levels of 4 milligrams per liter (mg/L or 4 parts per million (ppm) are considered safe in drinking water, according to the standard set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Anything beyond this maximum limit, according to WHO and health experts, is dangerous to human health.
Although chlorine is effective in treatment of drinking water as it helps to remove dangerous microorganisms in water or liquid substance, it is equally risky to human health when its residual levels exceed the approved standard by WHO and environmental health experts.
A study published by Harvard researchers in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute revealed that those who ingest highly chlorinated water over a long period of time stand the risk of developing bladder cancer and cancer of the rectum.
Experts speak on use of bleaches, detergents in Fufu processing
Against this background, experts, including microbiologists, food scientists, chemists and medical doctors, said the presence of free chlorine value of 6 milligrams and detergents in fufu paste (wet fufu) is poisonous to human body.
They explained that while chlorine presence in two of the samples falls within the maximum industrial limit, the one with 6 milligrams residual chlorine level is unfit for human consumption, while detergents, which also have chloride as one their active agents, should not be found in the samples at all.
A food technologist and nutrition researcher, Amidu Ilori, explained that chlorine is the active agent in household bleaches and a powerful oxidizer.
He said: “Pure chlorine is a toxic gas. Most household bleaches contain hypochlorite which releases chlorine when needed to remove stains, dirt and disinfect in laundry and kill parasites in similar chores.
“However, chlorine presence should not be more than 4 milligrams when it is used to treat drinking. In the case of having about 6 milligrams in fufu paste, this is highly toxic and dangerous for human consumption, because the high concentration of chlorine in this wet fufu will be transferred to consumers when it is eventually cooked and sold to people.”
Also, Ilori said that detergent should not have featured in the Fufu paste, arguing that its cumulative effect was dangerous.
He added: “Some laundry detergents contain bleach alternative, which is chlorine-based and effective at stain removal. However, chlorine bleach produces harmful fumes, and however little or insignificant the percentage is in fufu paste, it is extraneous to the popular staple.
“Even in small doses, detergents can slowly poison human body over time without the person knowing it. The chloride from many of these detergents can accumulate in the body, causing blood poisoning and inhibiting liver function as a result of constant ingestion of detergents from fufu over a period of time.
“Also, those who eat cooked fufu made from the dangerously processed wet fufu containing detergents could develop yellow skin and eyes as well as freckles on their skin.
Corroborating Ilori, a microbiologist, Vincent Edutimi, said high degrees of chlorine in wet fufu is not only unhealthy but fatal to human body, noting that using bleaches which contain the chemical substance to ferment cassava into fufu paste should be discouraged by health authorities.
He said: “Ordinarily, the presence of chlorine in most bleach brands in the country, mandatorily, is between two to three kilograms or milligrams and not more than 4 milligrams. Hence, six milligrams of same chemical substance in wet fufu is poisonous to human body and should not be encouraged by the concerned authorities.”
An industrial chemist and Quality Assurance Controller at MacMorris Laboratories Limited, Ilupeju, Lagos, Kingsley Okafor, said: “Free chlorine or sodium hypochlorite is an oxidising agent that disinfects and removes stains. But using 6 per cent of it to soak cassava in fufu paste production is beyond the acceptable standard in its use for treatment of water, which is between 2 to 4 milligrams.
“Consumers of such fufu paste when cooked could develop all kinds of health problems, including coughing, burning throat and, in worse cases, bladder cancer if they consume the adulterated staple over a period of time.”
A medical doctor, Austin Adeojo, said: “Toxic chlorine and detergents would ravage body organs and ultimately lead to deaths when they are ingested from fufu or any food item with such a huge amount of chlorine (6 milligrams). In the case of detergents, it should not have found its way into any food item, let alone a staple like fufu.”
Scary mortality rate from food poisoning
A Professor of Food Science and Technology at the Federal University of Technology (FUT) Minna, Niger State, Alfred Ihenkuronye, said that over 200,000 persons die of food poisoning in Nigeria annually.
Ihenkuronye, made the disclosure recently in Abuja, at a sensitisation programme for food vendors operating in the Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC). He said that the deaths were caused by contaminated foods through improper processing, preservation and service.
“There are many avenues through which foods can be contaminated. And when people eat these foods, they will have problems which may result in deaths,” he said.
According to a report on food safety published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in June this year, about 600 million people suffer ill-health as a result of food poisoning every year, and 420,000 of the number die every year.
The report reads in part: “Almost 1 in 10 people in the world fall ill after eating contaminated food, and 420,000 die every year. Children under five years of age carry 40 per cent of the food borne disease burden with 125 000 deaths every year.
“Access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food is key to sustaining life and promoting good health. Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances causes more than 200 diseases ranging from diarrhoea to cancers.”
“Diarrhoea diseases are the most common illnesses resulting from the consumption of contaminated food, causing 550 million people to fall ill and 230,000 deaths every year.’’
Ihenkuronye suggested continuous sensitisation and training of food handlers on how to operate in hygienic environment as a way of curbing the problem.
“The way out is sensitisation and training. We should sensitise people about the enormity of the problem, and we train them on how to do things properly,” he said.
WHO called for collaboration among stakeholders to stem the ugly trend, which, according to its report, has negative socio-economic consequences on nations.
“Food safety, nutrition and food security are inextricably linked. Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of disease and malnutrition, particularly affecting infants, young children, elderly and the sick.
“Food borne diseases impede socio-economic development by straining health care systems and harming national economies, tourism and trade.
“Food supply chains now cross multiple national borders. Good collaboration between governments, producers and consumers helps ensure food safety,” it added.
NAFDAC vows to go after culprits
The Director of Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Mr Sherif Olagunju, said the laboratory result which reveals the presence of 6 milligrams of chlorine in the sample of fufu paste was dangerous.
Olagunju said: “Six milligrams of chlorine in fufu paste is poisonous. Yes. you can get free chlorine in wet fufu or fufu paste, but six milligrams is too high and poisonous, because what is allowed as maximum limit of chlorine in water, like I told you, is 2 to 4 parts per million or milligrams. Therefore, six per cent or milligrams in a watery fufu or fufu paste is too high and dangerous.
“In water, we usually check for free chlorine, and the maximum is 2-4 parts per million residual chlorine. In tap water that we drink, the residual chlorine should not exceed 4 parts per million or milligrams, according to WHO standard.
“In food processing, you have to remove certain chemicals after using them as cleaning agents. Like in vegetable oil production, certain chemicals are used for extraction purposes but they are usually removed from the product immediately the extraction process ends.
“So if anyone is using chlorine in food item, such person should be able to ensure that what is left is not injurious to the health of consumers.
“I have noted the three markets where you claimed the samples presented for laboratory tests were purchased. We are going to carry out our investigations in line with our mandate to ensure food safety.
“We shall get back to you once we are through with our findings.”
Olagunju added that the agency had embarked on enlightenment programme to educate sellers and producers of staples lately.
“It is not only cassava that we are addressing but also any practice that can endanger food supply system. For instance, ripening of food items such as using carbide to ripen fruits, using sniper to preserve beans, putting dye stuff in palm oil to make it look very red.
“So, there are so many things we are engaging them on, and we would appreciate our friends in the media to partner with us to further carry the message forward so that everybody can be aware since NAFDAC cannot do it alone.
“There are punitive measures that are in place for defaulters within the laws setting up our agency, but it is usually difficult to find perpetrators.
“But in the event that somebody is caught or we buy some items and test it and confirm that it was contaminated or below approved standard, we have post marketing surveillance department that will search for such producers and appropriate sanctions would be applied.
“But for products that we did not register, like garri, yam flour, we usually note the store where we bought the product and we would go back to enlighten the producer and withdraw the item from the store or market.
“But if we find out that the product was deliberately contaminated or produced below approved standard, we would take appropriate sanctions against such producer(s).
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