Thursday, May 24, 2012

Chemical used to ripen mangoes

Illegal chemical ripening method imperils India's mango trade

Artificial ripening goes unabated

A trader in a mango wholesale market at Baneshar in Rajshahi scatter mangoes on the floor of a store to dry them off under a fan. The mangoes have been sprayed with ethephon, a chemical widely used for ripening fruits. Scientists say use of appropriate amount of ethephon in mangoes is permissible.Photo: Anisur Rahman

India's Rs.3 billion ($70 million) mango trade is fraught with health hazards due to the get-rich-quick schemes of vendors who artificially ripen the fruit using a harmful chemical.

Calcium carbide, used to ripen mangoes, is extremely hazardous and can have short-term as well as long-term health effects, said S. Krishna, the Chennai Corporation's additional health officer.

"Calcium carbide contains traces of arsenic and phosphorus. Once dissolved in water, it produces acetylene gas that affects the neurological system resulting in headache, dizziness, mood disturbances, sleepiness, mental confusion and seizures on a short-term basis, while it can in the long term cause memory loss and cerebral oedema," Krishna told IANS.

The Tamil Nadu police raided warehouses in six districts during the last fortnight and destroyed four tonnes of mangoes that were treated with calcium carbide.

Police sources said that in raids conducted in neighbouring Karnataka, over 300 kg of mangoes similarly ripened were destroyed in Bangalore city.

Using artificial methods of ripening fruit is punishable under law, as it falls under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act.

"Propelled by the quick-buck syndrome, vendors who wish to avoid the 3-4 days' wait for the normal method of mango-ripening with hay, use the harmful chemical instead. The chemical gives the fruit a misleading ripe, healthy look," said A. Karmegam, a Chennai trader who buys fruit from all over India.

The practice is prevalent in other parts of the country as well.

N.K. Aher, a wholesaler of mangoes in the Mahatma Phule Market in south Mumbai, told IANS over phone that mangoes were being widely treated with chemicals in Maharashtra. However, since no complaints have been made to the authorities, the practice was going on unchecked.

"This method of ripening is a south Indian import into the rest of India that can affect the Rs.3 billion-rupee nationwide annual turnover in mango trade. In Maharashtra, this has been going on for almost a year now. Even the world famous Alphonso mangoes sold in India have some chemical residues. As complaints are nonexistent, no remedial measures have been initiated," said Aher, who also exports fruit.

Though it is not easy to distinguish between the normal and the artificially ripened fruit, this can be done, Krishna said.

"The chemically altered mangoes have a subtle but bad smell and dark patches on their skin because of the calcium carbide heat. The organically produced and ripened mangoes look very ordinary, while the artificially ripened ones look more inviting," Krishna added.

There is of course, a bigger danger.

"Calcium carbide reacts exothermically with water forming calcium hydroxide and acetylene, an extremely inflammable gas. The heat of the reaction can be sufficient to raise the temperature above the ignition point for acetylene (305 degrees C) and upon mixture with air is likely to explode," according to a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison published in 2003.

Acetylene - a gas used in metal cutting with a concentrated flame - can burn underwater at over 1,000 degrees C and result in an explosion when in contact with a naked flame, enough to bring down a whole market. People in the vicinity can suffer up to 80 percent burns. This can even be mistaken for terrorist violence resulting in time-consuming investigations and fear, police sources said.

Nothing, not even the provision for capital punishment, can deter them.

The High Court on May 26 ordered prosecution of persons using harmful chemicals to ripen fruits, under the Special Powers Act, 1974 that provides for death as the maximum punishment.

Also, mobile courts are conducting drives in the capital as well as other cities to check the menace.

But still, a large number of orchard owners and traders across the country continue ripening mangoes with substance dangerous to public health.

During a visit to two big mango wholesale markets and orchards in Rajshahi and Chapainawabganj last week, it was found that many producers and traders use calcium carbide on mangoes.

They hardly heed to the HC order and mobile court actions.

“We use chemical [calcium carbide] to ripen mangoes,” said a wholesaler at Baneshwar in Rajshahi, preferring anonymity.

Nurul Islam, a producer at Nababganj in Chapainawabganj, said he uses calcium carbide as it ripens mangoes fast and adds attractive colour to the fruits.

“Why this medicine [calcium carbide] will be harmful? I just keep a piece of carbide wrapped in a paper in the storeroom for mangoes,” added Nurul, also a wholesale shop owner at Kansat.

Shafiqul Islam, chief scientific officer of Regional Horticulture Research Centre (RHRC) in Chapainawabganj, said “Orchard owners and traders use calcium carbide on mangoes only to make extra bucks. They don't bother about its impact on human health.”

On availability of the chemical compound, another producer, Kawsar Mian of Rajhati village at Nababganj said, “Most of the pharmacies in the area sell it.”

At markets of Baneshwar and Kansat, usage of the ripening agent is an everyday affair. Workers said they start treating the mangoes with the chemical early in the morning to get those ripened by afternoon and loaded onto trucks by evening.

Traders of Baneshwar said, from mid May to mid July every day at least 30 trucks of mangoes -- each carrying seven to eight tonnes -- leave from the market for different places around the country.

On haat [traditional market] days on Saturday and Tuesday, the supply surges to around 50 truck-loads.

Prof ABM Abdullah, dean, faculty of medicine at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, said calcium carbide, if consumed, can damage kidney, heart and liver and cause ulcer and gastric.

Mangoes ripened with calcium carbide taste abnormal or tangy, and look either pale or very bright with its flavour missing, he said. So people can easily identify them.

However, Nazrul Islam, a wholesaler at Baneshwar, said a section of businessmen and producers of the region now use ethephon, a regulator of plant growth and maturity, instead of calcium carbide.

Prof Nilufar Nahar of Dhaka University chemistry department said use of ethephon to ripen mangoes is allowed globally and it is not harmful to public health.

She said ethephon is widely used to help fruit reach maturity quickly and mango producers can try it.

RHRC scientist Shafiqul said it is important that people use proper dose of ethephon on mangoes.

He, however, suggests natural ripening as any sort of chemical reduces taste, fragrance and nutritious quality of fruits.

Mohammad Al-Amin, an executive magistrate of Dhaka deputy commissioner's office, said some traders now use ethephon instead of calcium carbide.

He said they are yet to be sure whether use of the chemical is bad for human health. But they penalise those using ethephon on charges of ripening fruits with chemicals.

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