Image courtesy Ceylon Luxury

The food drive announced by the Government, Api Wawamu Rata Nagimu, has to look at the whole question of public health very seriously or we could wind up doing more harm than good to our population. Food, must contribute to the health of the individual, but food grown with toxins detracts from individual health.  The quantity of food we produce will not help national development, if eating that food compromises health of the consumers.  Many other countries are taking serious steps to combat the scourge of sub lethal poisoning (where the victims do not die) very seriously. When the volume of food produced becomes the only goal of agriculture and issues such as public health are ignored, the mere operation of high-input industrial agriculture allows many toxins enter the diet of people.  In this article we will examine the effects of two classes of toxins, endocrine disruptors and estrogen mimics. Many modern conditions of ill health are brought about by endocrine disruptors, which affect the delicate hormonal balance of the body. One common group of estrogen mimics, are female hormone like molecules which promote the development of female characteristics such as abnormal enlargement of the breasts in males and the development of abnormal mammograms in females.  The consequence of using these chemicals in food production is illustrated by the recent findings in China where, medical tests performed on babies between four and 15 months old, revealed levels of estrogens that were as high as those found in most adult women.  There was overwhelming evidence that they were contaminated by the milk formula they have been fed. The milk contained large amounts of hormones. These hormones were part of the feed that is given to cows in commercial milk production.  Here, there is no testing for hormone levels in any of the milk produced or imported at the moment.

The endocrine system is made up of all the glands and cells that produce the chemicals that regulate the functions of our bodies.  These chemicals, termed hormones, control our rate of growth and development, sexual function, reproductive processes, mood, sleep, hunger, stress, metabolism and the way our bodies use food. In other words, one’s physical appearance whether a person is tall or short, lean or heavy is all determined in a big way by the endocrine system. But this system is like a finely tuned instrument, which is easily disrupted; for instance, if there is an excess of endocrine disruptors ingested there will be negative consequences.  One clear action of these chemicals that is general enough to be seen in a population is obesity. This phenomenon is so well known that a new term has been coined to describe these chemicals, ‘obesogens’. These are endocrine disrupting chemicals that work by mimicking estrogen a hormone which, in addition to ‘feminizising’ males also tends to increase risk of obesity, heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, blood clots and abnormal mammograms. All these features have been increasing alarmingly in our population.

Endocrine disruptors are very common in pesticides. The quantities of such pesticides applied to the vegetables grown in this country, are often without any regard to the effect on the consumer.  Getting vegetables to the market with a good appearance is more important that the health of the consumer.  The same problem affects much of the imported food. For example, studies in the US demonstrate that commercially produced apples often come loaded with obesity-promoting chemicals. Nine of the ten most commonly used pesticides in Apple growing are obesogens.  As all of the apples reaching Sri Lanka come from commercial farms that use high levels of biocides, they might wind up more dangerous than good. If eating Apples, always make sure to peel the skin before as the majority of the contaminants are on the skin. The situation is even worse with the most commonly consumed local vegetables, these often carry pesticide loads greater than those found in Apples.

An average Sri Lankan is exposed to 8-10 different pesticides through food, beverages and drinking water every day; the majorities of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors and accumulate in the body. However, there is a simple way to reduce the risk and clean your body; it is by consuming a diet of ‘clean’ food grown without the application of these poisons for a period of time, recent studies suggest that consuming organic food for about a week can reduce circulating pesticide based endocrine disrupting chemicals to non-detectable or near non-detectable levels. Sri Lanka unfortunately does not have a program of public health where the food arriving in the markets is checked for their toxin levels. Other nations which do have such testing programs have identified the following crops as the worst culprits; celery, strawberries, apples, bell peppers, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, kale type greens, potatoes and grapes.

There is another ubiquitous class of chemicals that affect the endocrine system and is common in our diets, they are substances like bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates, both are chemicals found in plastics. These chemicals too act very much like pesticide; they mimic estrogens and act like artificial female hormones. In the US, 93 percent of the population has detectable levels of bisphenol-A (BPA) and 73 percent have phthalates in their bodies.  In Sri Lanka there is very little knowledge of the dangers of using plastics with food or drink. Three significant ways that we ingest these chemicals from plastics are:

  1. Placing hot food or drinks in plastic containers. For example, BPA leaches from polycarbonate sports bottles 55 times faster when exposed to boiling liquids as opposed to cold ones.
  2. By wrapping oily or fatty foods in PVC based plastic wrapping. The fat in the food absorbs the EDC’s that leach from the wrap.
  3. Eating canned foods. Most modern cans contain BPA in the inner lining of the cans, this it leaches into the food placed in it, especially if acid like canned tomatoes or when heated material such as processed fish is placed in the can at the time of canning.

Recent research of the heavy metal poisoning of the farmers of the NCP points directly to the heavy use of artificial fertilizer in the vegetable growing areas in the hills.  Growing or consuming food that is tainted with toxins will not help national development.  It will weaken the population and increase national health care costs. The population of Sri Lanka is already exposed to the toxins that are found in many imported products. Poisoning our homegrown food in the name of ‘agricultural development’ cannot, contribute to national development. The drive to be more productive in agriculture must also be one that embraces the concept of ‘clean and healthy’ food.  The development of a robust and sustainable agriculture must be guided by a rigorous program of testing for hormones and toxins before products are allowed onto the market for public consumption.

The combination of artificial colours and preservatives in food is another area of concern. The Journal of Food Science reported a study where, young rats were fed a low-fiber diet along with sodium cyclamate, FD&C Red No. 2 and polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monostearate individually and in combination. While the study found that any one of the three food additives given individually had little negative effect, the combination of all three additives resulted in weight loss and the death of all test animals within fourteen days.

The increase in the manifestation of non –communicable diseases is alarming. The latest statistic presented suggests that a full 74% of the adult populations of this country are prone to develop some type of non-communicable disease.  When the sources of these diseases are considered, environmental pollutants, food with toxins and stress the need to pay close attention to the cleanliness of food production becomes paramount.

There is an alarming development on the story of arsenic and cadmium contamination of our food from the agricultural inputs.  Unless, the poisoning of the nation is addressed forcefully, the rhetoric of agricultural productivity will fall on sick ears.