Formalin – never ending woe

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January 15, 2013

Sadiqur Rahman explores the persistent trend of applying formalin to ‘fish’, a crisis that is destroying our tradition of being ‘Maache Bhaate Bangali’

‘Formalin Machh’ (fish contaminated with formalin) is a common word that lurks in the fearful minds of shoppers at fish markets of this country now. Thanks to media reports on arbitrary usage of formalin to preserve perishable food items that causes probable physical threats through regular consumption of formalin and cautious alarming of health experts, there is a higher level of awareness and concern among kitchen market buyers who flock the markets for fish and other food items.
Farid Ahmed Kanchan, a businessman residing at the Farmgate area of the city, shares his confusion while looking for fishes which are formalin free at the Farmgate kitchen market. ‘My daughter is very fond of fish,’ he tells Xtra. ‘But I try to avoid it most of the time as I am not sure whether the fish showcased in the market are laced with formalin or not,’ he says.
Farid also adds that sometimes he has to rely on his common sense. If flies are not swarming over the baskets of fish, then these are the ones preserved by formalin. But at times, even this theory does not help as sellers confuse the customers by keeping ice in the bowls of fish so that customers believe that the fishes are preserved only by ice and not formalin.
However, in recent years, food contamination by using harmful preservatives in all of the perishable food items like fruit, milk and fish has been going on unabated due to some unscrupulous traders’ ill intentions and also indulgence by government negligence to check the trends.  Many sellers spray their fish with formalin, which is usually used for preservation of tissues. It makes the fishes stiff and giving these a fresh look for longer periods of time.

Health risks
Mainly in the city’s wholesale kitchen markets, many traders collect fruits, vegetables and fish across the areas outside this city and before selling them to the small traders of different city areas, they have to preserve the items more than a day in their stores. The small traders often have to store their items one or two days long before selling them to the retail shoppers. ‘So,’ a trader tells Xtra, ‘we have to use chemical preservatives to keep stocked food items “fresh”.’
Concerned health experts have responded to media queries on rapid unruly usage of the chemicals to preserve food items as they fear that the preservatives are threatening the natural growth of human cells and may welcome unwanted health complexities like heart diseases, blood disorders and bone marrow abnormalities etc.
Physicians have stated in different news media that the regular consumption of formalin-laced fish increases chance of malignancy and neurological impairment or brain functions. Dr Umme Ara, principle scientific officer of the institution of Food Science and Technology of the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR), says to Xtra that formalin may cause uncontrolled cell growth or cancer in stomach, lung and respiratory system if anyone consumes fish contaminated with it.
However, professor Mir Misbahuddin, chairman of the department of pharmacology of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, tells Xtra that no explicit research on diseases based on formalin affective has been conducted in this country yet and not even in the international arena. ‘But, the chemical substances that should not to be in food items are harmful to human bodies if the contaminated items are regularly consumed,’ says Misbahuddin, based on previous medical researches. He adds, ‘Formalin, carbide and DDT (a kind of pesticide that has been used to preserve dry fish) are not part of nutrition in our food items and the chemicals are being used in stretching foods’ unnatural lifeline. Hence, if the chemicals are consumed, these obviously reacts to cause unnatural nutritional composition in human bodies adversely impacting the human cell growth system. Formalin, a typical commercial grade of formaldehyde, may contain 10 to 12 per cent methanol and aluminium, iron and copper.’
‘So, we all should refrain from consuming food items contaminated with non-nutrient chemicals,’ says Misbahuddin.

Arbitrary use of formalin
Citizens urge to strictly control the use of formalin was not properly identified by the government till recently when the nation’s apex trade body, Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) took initiatives to check formalin use in some of the city’s kitchen markets. On September 19, through the assistance of FBCCI, Malibagh kitchen market traders committee declared the market ‘formalin free’. The market’s traders’ cooperative body general secretary Shamim Bhuiyan says that they have been monitoring fish trading through their market as the traders were directed by the cooperative body to check the fish through a formalin detection machine, brought by the FBCCCI.
FBCCI has provided the detection machine that is worth Tk 1,35,000. They also trained some staff of the markets at operating it. Stretching the initiative, city’s Shantinagar, Mohakhali and DCC-north kitchen market at Gulshan-2 were declared ‘formalin free’ markets on November 1, 8 and 17, respectively.
Professor Dr A I Mustafa, chairman of the BCSIR, informs Xtra that the machine is better at detecting formalin than the kits which were used by BCSIR earlier. ‘Through the BCSIR kits, we can detect formalin contamination from 5 ppm to above. But this machine can detect contamination lower than this quantity, which is great,’ he says.
While welcoming the initiative, Osman Gani, a bank officer living at Segun Bagicha of the city, opines, ‘It is not possible to come every weekend to buy fish from the Shantinagar fish market, the nearest formalin free fish hub from my residence.’ Gani urges the government to operate regular investigations to check formalin usage in all fish markets of the city.
However, governments’ inadequate monitoring in markets frustrate most citizens. Though the task is bestowed upon the sanitary officials of the Dhaka city corporations, both in South and North parts, shoppers and traders hardly find them at their duties.  Brigadier General Abdullah Al Harun, the chief health officer of the Dhaka South City Corporation, admits, ‘Some corrupted DCC officials have been neglecting their responsibilities. But following the government’s strict direction, last month we conducted 16 mobile courts in the 12 kitchen markets under DCC south.’  He continues, ‘Whatever the outcome we have got, I am not satisfied with the operation – truly,’ says Harun.
The city’s chief health officer also assures, ‘The DCC authority has already initiated to procure numbers of formalin detector machines so that the officials can capture fish laced with formalin while trading.’

Formalin at different stages of trading
The state authority on controlling standard of different products including food items, Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution (BSTI) has conducted numerous mobile courts to check food adulteration in recent years. One BSTI source informs Xtra that from July 2011 to June 2012, BSTI operated 72 mobile courts to try unscrupulous food traders and collected Tk 1,419,500 as fine. From these, BSTI found only 95 kilogrammes of formalin-contaminated fish and destroyed these after fining the fish traders.
Some customers and small fish traders lament that the government’s monitoring of ‘formalin on fish’ issue is confined only to the busy fish markets and not during other times and areas, especially during different stages of fish trading.
Bached Miah, a small fish trader at Farmgate area says that he, along with some other small traders, buy fish from the Kawran Bazar fish depot and they all sell the procured fish on day-to-day basis. ‘Regularly, I procure fish costing Tk 5,000 to 6,000 from the wholesale market and sell most of the fish in a day. I need not to spray formalin on my fish,’ says Bached. He adds that he is not aware about how to detect contaminated fish and also does not know anyone involved in this crime.
The capital city’s main fish depots are located at Jatrabari, Shoarighat, Tongi, Abdullahpur, Rampura, Mugda, Mirpur-1, Mirpur-12, Baipail and Gabtali areas. Fish from Bagerhat, Satkhira, Chittagong, Rajshahi, Narsingdi, Jamalpur, Sylhet and other districts are traded through these wholesale markets. According to some wholesalers, lion shares of big sized fish stocks like Rui or Rohi, Katla and Mrigel are imported from India and Myanmar.
Mannan Sirker, a fish depot owner at Kawran Bazar shares that the wholesalers buy fish from all parts of Bangladesh. ‘The fishes are unloaded here from evening to dawn and we can sell most of them within four to five hours,’ he says. According to Mannan, often they have to store the unsold fish and preserve them only with ice in their cold-depots.
Denying to give any clue of who are involved with formalin spraying, Mannan says that fishermen who first collect fish from the water sources may have done this. He, however, says that he has been informed that imported fish from India and Myanmar are preserved with formalin as the fish supply takes three to four days to reach the depots at Dhaka.
Another wholesaler, under terms of anonymity, states that local traders also are involved with this act. ‘The big traders who maintain networks of whole fish trading, from the first collectors to the small traders of the city, provide formalin to the fishermen,’ he says.
He also says that fish cultivated in fish farms are prone to rot fast compared to those which are from rivers or natural water bodies. ‘Some traders who are linked with fish farms are involved in using formalin,’ the wholesaler says.
Brigadier General Abdullah Al Harun, DCC south’s chief health officer, says that fish traders use formalin as the chemical is much cheaper compared to ice, the familiar preservative of perishable food items. ‘The traders are interested to use formalin as it costs only Tk five to 10 to preserve a tank of fish whereas it would cost Tk 300 to 400 if the traders use ice in the same purposes,’ he says, before blaming the uncontrolled commercial trading of formalin in this country.

Importing formalin
In Bangladesh, there are two groups of chemical importers under governmental supervision. The first group supplies chemicals to hospitals, pathological centres and different laboratories. They have to submit documents of sale to the authorised governmental agency.
The other group sells chemicals commercially in open markets. There are allegations against these commercial sellers for being involved with formalin sale to the fish traders. Mohammad Ibrahim, a license holder chemical wholeseller at the Mostafiz Market in Mitford Hospital area, the country’s main wholesale market of chemicals, denies the allegations. He tells Xtra, ‘Customers from different small industries and private pathological centres buy chemicals from us. But who use these chemicals, in which purpose etc. is not a matter of concern to us.’
He says that though the government has recently banned the import of formalin, ‘it will not effect fish contamination because the importers have already stored formalin stocks for the next one year.’ He adds, ‘Government can foreclose all the stored formalin from us rather than imposing a ban on selling this chemical commercially.’ ‘This will only affect the industries which depend on this preservative chemical,’ Ibrahim says.
According to chemical traders, formalin is essential for different industrial works such as garment colour and gum preservative, poultry farms, hardboard, plywood factories and so on.
Mohammad Ibrahim advises, ‘Government should take steps to raise awareness among fish traders for not using formalin on fish. Not only does it harm the general shoppers but also these threatens the family members of the fish traders who consume such fish.’
The ministry of fisheries and livestock (MoFL) said recently that the government has taken initiatives at imparting training programmes to raise awareness against use of formalin to around 40 thousand people related to fish cultivation and trading. The ministry officials state that a three year long project on Fish Preservation and launch of Mass Awareness Campaign will be run till 2014 with an estimated cost of Tk 7.70 crore that will cover training programmes to curb formalin usages to some 37,000 fishermen, fish traders and fish wholesalers, nearly 5,000 members from local kitchen market management committees and 1,000 fisheries department officials across the country. Project director Dr GM Shamsul Kabir also states that 50 fish markets and fish depots in seven divisional cities, fish depots and markets of about 250 upazilas across the country will be covered under these training programmes.
‘Formalin detection in fish, harmful effects of formalin, safe fish preservation process and awareness building against the use of formalin will be discussed during the training sessions,’ says Kabir.
He also informs that the fisheries department will procure 80 boxes of formalin detection kits from United States to distribute them among the district fisheries officials.

Source: Bangladesh Chronicle