By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
I know that the dominant health topic now is Coronavirus (or, if you like, Chinese Virus), but I feel compelled to draw attention to some egregious practices by some callous and cruel Nigerians that are ruining many lives daily in this country. These vile characters are able to unleash this grievous harm on innocent Nigerians because the various regulatory agencies like, the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) or the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON, are either in very deep slumber or very sick and nigh unto death, or even dead and awaiting burial!
I think that if some far-reaching interventions are not urgently undertaken, we would not be able to rule out the possibility that the rest of the world might wake up one day and discover that this large, unproductive territory called Nigeria has become one wide stretch of empty space, devoid of humans or littered with decaying corpses? Is it that human life has since totally lost its value before Nigerians or what? How far should rational human beings tread on the path of mutual annihilation before they realise that it is, perhaps, time to do a rethink, beat a retreat and commence the homeward journey to self-reclamation?
Let me explain. Just recently a young Nigerian medical doctor put out a message on the social media warning Nigerians about these beverages mostly prepared at home by diverse vendors and supplied to offices, business places and at events to Nigerians who eagerly purchase them these days because of the growing emphasis on “natural drinks” as healthy alternatives to “machine processed” beverages which have been established to contain very harmful (especially, carcinogenic) chemicals used as either preservatives or sweeteners. Some of the sodas (or what Nigerians call “minerals”) people drink with relish here are just concoctions of carbonated water, flavours, colourings and lots of sugar or sweeteners.
A growing number of Nigerians are becoming aware that sugar, amino acids and fats in the body constitute rich food for cancer cells and that their growth might be halted if they could no longer find any of these to feed on. But more specifically, too much sugar (especially, the processed variety) hastens one’s embrace with diabetes and the disastrous consequences that go with it. This awareness also appears to be reducing the seductive capacity of the usually attractively packaged concoctions called “fruit juice” sold in our supermarkets.
And so, the “natural drinks”, like “Zobo,” “Kunu,” or diverse mixtures of juices extracted from either tigre nuts, dates or different kinds of fruits have grown to become the favourites of many Nigerians. And because of their growing popularity, many restaurants now either produce them or engage the producers to ensure they get sufficient supplies of these “natural drinks” in order to meet the growing demand by their customers for them.
The young doctor’s worry is not even the mostly unregulated nature of their productions which (judging by merely looking at many of the people that produce and market them) are most likely prepared in very unhygienic environments with largely contaminated water. His main concern is with the plastic bottles in which these drinks are stored and sold.
These people go to all manner of places to gather these bottles which people had discarded after drinking the water they once contained. Many of the bottles are even from hospitals and were mostly used by patients. Many of these patients are battling terrible infectious diseases like Tuberculosis and others, and after drinking the water, several of them keep the bottles for a while and spit into them each time they are pressured by the disease to do so. There are also patients who are too weak to visit the lavatories and so urinate into these bottles. At the end of the day, these are disposed of at the hospital dustbins (where other disease-carrying unmentionables are also thrown into) from where the cleaners retrieve them, pour away the various liquids they saw inside them and sell them to these “natural beverage” producers, who may only rinse them with even the unhealthy water available to them and use them to bottle the “Zobos”, “Kunus”and the diverse “natural” fruit juices they bottle and sell to unsuspecting Nigerians.
Now, if companies that are subjected to periodic inspections by regulatory agencies could be caught cutting corners to the detriment of the health of the citizenry, what should one expect from people who produce these beverages in the safe confines of their homes and whose eyes are solely glued to the profits they are expecting to rake in? And so, with your N100 or even less, you buy and take home diseases-bearing liquids in unsterilised bottles from which you might contract ailments that might either eventually take your life or consume millions of naira before leaving you. Now, while you are chewing on that, let’s look at another aspect of the problem.
Recently, I read a report that a Lagos-based journalist had taken ill after consuming some fruits he bought from some vendors. He was taken to the hospital where he eventually died. The doctors blamed the death on food poisoning. It is a popular belief in Lagos that traders use some chemicals (calcium carbide and others) to ripen fruits or even preserve them from over-ripening and spoiling. According to a Wikipaedia entry, “when calcium carbide comes in contact with moisture, it produces acetylene gas, which is quite similar in its effects to the natural ripening agent, ethylene. Acetylene acts like ethylene and accelerates the ripening process.”
Now, have you noticed that sometimes after consuming some fruits – banana, mango, pawpaw, etc., you would begin to have this strange, uncomfortable taste lingering down your throat. That’s the residual taste of the chemical used in accelerating the ripening of the fruits or preserving them. And they could be very dangerous to health. The best alternative for wary consumers has been to go to some markets where the local farmers supply these fruits, buy unripe ones, take them home and keep them until they become ripe naturally and ready for consumption.
Nigeria is suddenly having too many cases of organ failures, cancer and other malignant ailments attacking both young and old people. These have largely been attributed to these chemicals people take in while consuming these fruits and other food items. Now, who among our health bodies and regulatory agencies are trying to find out if there is indeed a proliferation of these harmful practices by fruit sellers (as is widely believed) and are deploying preventive measures to save the lives of Nigerians? The other day, a video of a girl peeling some unripe oranges was in circulation. After removing the outer coverings, the girl would dip them into some liquid in a basin and immediately the oranges would assume the colour of ripe ones? Now, in the process of doing this, who knows the amount of poison transferred into the oranges?
There are other varieties of these dangerous practices. Recently, a video featuring some beans sellers (who were heard discussing in the Hausa language) spraying the Sniper brand of pesticide on the beans they had spread on large mats, perhaps, to prevent weevils from attacking them, was widely circulated on the social media, especially, WhatsApp. It is popular knowledge that Sniper is one of the deadliest pesticides today. Most of the cases of suicides reported in Nigeria in the recent past had showed that majority of the people involved had used it to end their lives, prompting calls for it to be banned in the country.
Now how can human beings use this same deadly poison to safeguard a favourite food item from infestation by weevils? How far can Nigerians go to sell poisoned food items just to make huge profits? What are the authorities and regulatory agencies doing about this? Have they investigated it, and what are they doing to discourage this dangerous method of preservation? Or would they continue to pretend that those viral videos had not got to them? Shouldn’t the people perpetrating these criminal activities be fished out and prosecuted for attempted murder to serve as deterrence? By the way, what healthy alternatives have the authorities offered to the grains traders for the preservation of their goods since it is possible that these fellows engaging in these dangerous practices might be quite oblivious of the many lives they are harming, including their own, since they also eat from their stock of the commodities?
Some months ago, the social media was awash with reports that dried fish sellers also use this same Sniper to prevent weevil infestation of their fishes. Now, what is being done to save the eager consumers of this food item relished by many? There is also the information trending on the social media that people use a mixture of transformer oil and vegetable oil to fry “Akara”, “Puff-puff”, Yam, etc., for sale while butchers and fish sellers also use Sniper to ward off flies from their wares.
Again, on January 10, 2020, the Nigerian Tribune published an editorial on the warning reportedly handed down by the Osun State Government to caterers and food vendors involved in “pernicious practice of using paracetamol to [boil and] tenderise meat and using bleaching detergents for cassava processing, ostensibly to induce whiteness in the popular foods, fufu and gari.” According to the Tribune, at a joint news conference in Oshogbo, the Governor’s Special Adviser on Public Health, Siji Olamiju, and the state Commissioner for Information and Civic Orientation, Mrs. Funke Egbemode, stressed the “harmful effects of the practices on vital organs of the body such as the liver, kidneys, heart and the small intestines.”
Now, with all these harmful situations facing hapless Nigerians, where are our public health authorities? Where are NAFDAC and SON? The story out there is that NAFDAC died with Dr. Dora Akunyili. And as for SON, I wonder if anybody has ever taken them serious. There is another body called the Consumer Protection Council, what exactly is it doing to justify its existence? How is it “protecting” the consumer?
Not too long ago, I stumbled on a news item conveying the warning by the Director-General of National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye, about the grievous damage fruits ripened with calcium carbide could inflict on the health of the people. Now what are Nigerians supposed to do with this vacuous warning? Do they have the equipments for detecting fruits ripened by calcium carbide? Shouldn’t NAFDAC be out there fishing out the people involved in this devilish practice and prosecuting them to deter others in order to save the lives of Nigerians? How exactly will this empty warning help save Nigerian lives?
In societies where human lives are valued, regulatory agencies do not just sit behind their huge desks and issue useless warnings. They swing into actions to halt every practice that poses danger to the lives of the citizenry. They prosecute the perpetrators to deter others. Well, what do you expect from a country where some group of herdsmen wake up almost daily to kill, maim, rape and sack villages without any consequence? And the authorities do not lift any finger to ensure they are punished for their crimes. Does Nigeria qualify to be called the land of rational human beings? A huge shame!
*** Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, a journalist, writer, columnist and member of the Editorial Board, Daily Independent newspaper. He is the author the book, NIGERIA: Why Looting May Not Stop. He can be reached on: firstname.lastname@example.org)